Using Technology To Aid Emergency Response Involving People with Disabilities

November 14, 2014
Janice Lehrer, Council Member for the National Council on Disability speaks at a Federal Communications Commission Accessing Social Media event in July 2014.
Janice Lehrer, Council Member for the National Council on Disability speaks at a Federal Communications Commission Accessing Social Media event in July 2014.

By Kyle Richardson, Public Affairs Specialist
Part one of this blog focused on a training program at Niagara University that helps first responders prepare for emergencies involving individuals with disabilities. This follow-up blog reports on various efforts to leverage technology to increase emergency preparedness and response for the disabled community.

David Whalen, who runs Niagara University's First Responders Disability Awareness Training (FRDAT) program, says that in today’s technologically driven world, considerations must be made to get information to the first responder in the most effective way, and vice-versa, when it comes to interacting with those with disabilities. He points to solutions like smartphone applications (apps) and Web programs to help responders with awareness, language translation, tips for communicating with those with speech impediments, and more.

“We’re looking at other ways we can provide information, like apps so that the ability of a first responder to educate themselves is not just one avenue,” David says. “What we try to provide first responders is not just the education but everything that would allow them to have quick access to information, be able to get answers to questions they may have without having to try to dig too deep.”

In addition to the work that David is leading at Niagara, there are several efforts aimed at increasing the disabled community’s access to new technologies for emergency planning and response purposes. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) addressed the issue during the Accessing Social Media event in Washington, DC in July. The forum brought together industry, consumer, and government representatives to exchange information about making social media tools and content accessible to people with disabilities.

More recently, last week the FCC also held the Accessible Wireless Emergency Communications Forum to promote the latest advances in accessible wireless emergency communications and raise awareness of the needs of people with disabilities prior to developing devices and services that can be used during emergencies.

Janice Lehrer-Stein, Council Member for the National Council on Disability, tells FirstNet that the NCD has engaged with federal and state partners to ensure emergency preparations and responses are fully inclusive of the disabled community. This includes participating in the planning of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “Hackathon” last March to develop applications and other tools, as well as meetings with private sector technology companies on the issue.

“As we have learned from Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, it is necessary to plan ahead, and make certain that state and local emergency plans consider and include Americans with disabilities from the initial planning stages through to execution and on into follow-up,” says Janice, who is blind herself. “Cutting edge technologies like text-to-911, mobile phone applications, and virtual neighborhood watch groups are increasingly available.”

The National Public Radio (NPR) Labs has also launched an initiative that leverages technology to improve communications to the disabled community during emergencies. NPR participated in the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Demo Day earlier this year to talk about an emergency-alerting telecommunications device designed to bring emergency radio broadcasts to deaf or hard-of-hearing persons. Called “Nipper One,” the device translates emergency radio broadcasts into onscreen text and flashes alert lights. The broadcast technology is available regardless of power outages, Internet, or cellular-service limitations.

David says these and other efforts are helping and that everyone can play a role by considering the needs of the disabled community during emergencies. “The number one thing we say is, especially in emergency management, ‘nothing about us without us’,” said David. “All that means is that when you are doing any planning, when you are having any meeting, you cannot do it without someone who knows how to represent the disability community.”

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