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Candace Low, M.Ed.
110 South Hartford, Suite 115
Tulsa, Oklahoma 74120
Tel. 918. 592-1235 voice/TDD
Joann Babiak, J.D./M.A.; M.A.-CCC(Sp)
406 South Boulder Suite 400
Tulsa, Oklahoma 74103
Disasters can happen any place, any time and with little or no warning. In many areas, storms develop literally "out of the blue". Oklahoma experiences more tornadoes per square mile on the average than anyplace else in the world.(1)
People who live in "Tornado Alley", the south-central region of the United states, are quite familiar with the tornado warning siren's ear-piercing wail and with television programs interrupted by weather alerts that provide early warnings of potential or imminent danger. Many people obtain news of severe weather conditions or disasters through television broadcasts. Local stations often transmit a series of tones prior to reports. The tones alert viewers that important information will follow. Televised weather warnings often display color coded maps which provide general information about the path and severity of the oncoming storm. Weather reporters' verbal descriptions contain many important specifics. Early warnings can save lives; however, not everyone can hear a warning siren and many television viewers can not decipher televised messages telling of approaching danger.
The conventional reporting format does not provide sufficient information to viewers who are deaf or experience hearing impairment. Almost half of the approximately 49 million Americans experiencing disability are deaf or hearing impaired.(2) Research reveals that one out of eight individuals does not receive appropriate warning of approaching dangerous weather conditions. The uninformed individual can not make appropriate decisions about when to seek shelter or assistance. Life threatening events may occur if individuals do not receive appropriate warnings of impending danger.
Project Early Warning (the "Project") was initiated by the ACCESS OK/ADA Roundtable to inform individuals who depend on captioning about life threatening weather and potential disaster situations. The Project is a work in progress. The vagaries of severe weather systems have spared us from unleashing our volunteer forces in 1998; most tornadoes occur between mid-March and mid-June.(3) Despite our thus far tornado-free weather, Roundtable members have developed the Project through hard work and determination. In the face of extremely limited resources and manpower we have crafted a program that will provide valuable service to many people. Viewers within Northeastern Oklahoma and parts of Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas will benefit from the Project. The Project is not intended to replace existing captioning or to relieve the television stations of their mandated responsibilities under current local, state, or federal legislation. Rather, the Project bridges an existing gap between the limited information presented during conventional televised weather or disaster warnings and the complete commentary presented through "Real Time Captioning". Bridging the gap can be a life-saver.
The ACCESS OK/ADA Roundtable (the "Roundtable") is a statewide organization established by Ability Resources(4), a center for independent living. The Roundtable provides many services, including, but not limited to speakers for conferences, workshops, inservice training, civic groups, business and professional organizations, social service agencies, schools, parent groups, and disability related organizations; technical assistance and on-site ADA compliance assessments, general information on ADA questions, and disability awareness issues; statewide training opportunities on the ADA and disability awareness; and organized advocacy efforts for systems change to improve the quality of life for all members of the community.
Roundtable members' grassroots advocacy efforts developed the concept of captioning into a coordinated information delivery program for persons who rely on visual input to obtain information. The concept of a partnership between the private sector, the public sector and the community at large did not spring full blown from Roundtable members' discussions. At the outset, Roundtable Members simply wanted to develop a project that would make life easier for community members experiencing disabilities; we had no specific focus.
We began by exploring needs within the community of people experiencing disability. Not surprisingly, in our search for an appropriate project, the Roundtable members identified a general lack of services for individuals experiencing disabilities. Our needs identification discussions generated a wide range of worthy projects. Our choice to tackle the Severe Weather Alerts built upon commonalties between the population we wished to benefit from enhanced services and the population at large. Severe weather affects all members of the community(5); therefore, community members could relate to the importance of this project without much debate about its merits.
We attempted to assure community buy-in by carefully selecting a project that would stimulate community interest and involvement. Project Early Warning addresses an important need and unites diverse segments of our community. Before Project Early Warning, the hearing community received information that was unavailable to individuals who were deaf or hard of hearing. A distinctive tone alerted television viewers to severe storm warnings. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing missed this tonal signal. As severe weather approached or intensified, stations interrupted regularly scheduled programming to announce weather related developments such as strong winds, funnel cloud sightings, severe hail and flooding. Again, individuals who were deaf or hard of hearing missed the auditory content of the message. However, most broadcasts simultaneously displayed color coded weather maps indicating areas affected by the storm. By virtue of their lack of specificity, the maps increased the anxiety of individuals unable to process auditory information. Announcements of road closings and specific high risk areas were not presented on the maps, yet the threat of impending severe weather was clear. Our goal crystallized: persuade television stations to broadcast visual messages which presented substantially the same information contained in the auditory message.
We identified key players who would support our efforts and solicited their support. Success hinged on developing a working relationship with television broadcast media. We approached the local TV stations with a proposal that couched the desired outcome--captioning-- in terms of the potential benefits to the station. We did not position our discussions as an issue of compliance with federal regulations (e.g.; FCC and ADA). Our strategy was to demonstrate that enhancing an already existing service would increase the station's viewing audience, generate positive community attention, and furnish valuable additional services at virtually no cost to the provider.
We proposed developing a cadre of trained volunteers who would arrive at area stations during inclement weather and man the captioning equipment during storms. The NBC affiliate KJRH, the ABC affiliate KTUL, and the CBS affiliate KOTV are all involved in the Project. Roundtable members recruit and train the volunteers and the stations provide orientation and practice opportunities on the captioning equipment. Many local television stations immediately realized the benefit of providing additional services for a modest financial cost and minimal time and personnel involvement.
Initially, Roundtable members were unaware of both the scope of the project and the monumental opportunity to effect change at the community level. We took small steps and created community support. After the television stations expressed interest in Project Early Warning and agreed to train volunteer captioners, we focused our efforts on two areas: obtaining supplies and equipment and recruiting a pool of volunteers to caption the weather reports. Roundtable members asked businesses and organizations to donate services to further our efforts. Roundtable members obtained a greatly reduced rate for printing costs for an informational brochure about Project Early Warning. Thanks to the Tulsa Area United Way, two thousand brochures were printed at a cost of under one hundred dollars. As the brochure circulated throughout the community, additional support surfaced. AT & T Wireless donated an alpha pager and ten to fifteen conventional pagers for the purpose of alerting volunteers to report to the television station. Call Rape, another community service agency, volunteered to coordinate paging the volunteers to report to the television stations. Our efforts resulted in partnerships with many private sector businesses and public sector agencies.
Recruiting and retaining a force of volunteers is central to our efforts to bring Project Early Warning to the community. Our initial efforts have generated interest in a small group of people. The nature of volunteerism has changed significantly as increasing numbers of women are involved in the workforce. As a result, the size of the volunteer pool has diminished. Many worthy causes compete for the rare person who can devote time to a volunteer effort.
As a stopgap measure, the Project recently hired a paid volunteer coordinator. The Coordinator will work twenty hours per week to recruit additional volunteers, develop a "call" schedule for captioners, and obtain additional support services. The Private Industry Training Counsel Senior Community Services Program has funded the Coordinator position for four months. The Project currently seeks grant monies for additional support.
The Project Coordinator recruits community volunteers to become "Emergency Alert Captioners" ( "EAC's"). Trained EAC's are on-call to provide captioning during disasters and severe weather. The EAC call schedule will be posted monthly. On call EAC's are assigned to one of the participating television stations and are issued a pager which is worn at all times during call. When a television station receives information about impending severe weather, station personnel will call the Project number at Call Rape and a Call Rape staff dispatcher will page the Project EAC on call. The EAC will go to his or her assigned television station and provide captioning services. Captioning will accompany any auditory broadcasts within the viewing area.
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