2006 Conference General Sessions

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EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS AND PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES: POLICY, PLANNING, AND WIRELESS TECHNOLOGICAL RESPONSES

 

Presenter #1
Helena Mitchell
CACP/Georgia Institute of Technology
250 14th St. NW
Atlanta GA 30318

Day Phone: 404.385.4640
Email: helena.mitchell@cacp.gatech.edu

People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during natural and manmade disasters. This paper addresses emergency communications and wireless technologies? role in bridging critical gaps

INTRODUCTION

     "In 2004, the American Red Cross responded to almost 70,000 disasters, large and small...no state or territory was left untouched."2 As illustrated and reported in the popular press many of those injured occur among the more vulnerable populations.  An estimated 49.7 million men, women and children have a disability that to some degree impacts their everyday activities.3  Further, approximately 35.0 million Americans (12.4 % of the total population) are over the age of 65 years4 and by 2030 the 65 and over population will double to 70 million or 20 % of the total U.S. population.5  The magnitude of these vulnerable populations is a critical consideration when conducting disaster planning and emergency communications.  Unfortunately, the fact that few emergency personnel or accessible technologies specifically address or understand the needs of persons with disabilities during stressful emergency events represents a significant policy concern.  

CHALLENGES OF EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS POLICY

     The role of emergency communications and telecommunications tools in ensuring full participation in society is reflected in a variety of legislative, regulatory and policy instruments.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was created to provide a clear and comprehensive mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities,6  and to ensure ?access to public services.?7 Congress included within the Telecommunications Act of 1996 a provision to ensure individuals with disabilities had access to emergency services.
     In 2004, Executive Order 13347 required that there be appropriate support and coordination of efforts at various levels of the Federal government to ensure the safety and security of persons with disabilities during natural and manmade emergency situations.8  The Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities which was formed as a result of the executive order had clear goals as stated by Daniel W. Sutherland, Department of Homeland Securityís Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, ?This Council will ensure the coordination of preparedness work being done across the country, maximize the value of past efforts and stimulate new work to address the difficult challenges that face this community.?9  
In addition to Executive Branch activities, the regulatory branch of government examined the effectiveness of emergency communications.  In field tests between 1991 and 1994, agencies that dealt with emergency preparedness went through a series of rulemakings, holding hearings and focus groups to examine the factors that would create a strong working emergency communications system to replace EBS.10  Stakeholders such as the National Association for the Deaf, Television for All, Telecommunications for the Deaf, Self Help for Hard of Hearing People, and Gallaudet University, and industry? lead by the Electronic Industry Association also participated.  
As a result of combined efforts, a new Emergency Alert System (EAS) was created by Report and Order in November 1994.  EAS required provisions for hearing and visually impaired persons? including text across all channel, audio alerts, and the ability to turn-on specifically equipped radios and televisions, cable systems were to provide video messages on all channels to hearing impaired and deaf subscribers and audio and video interrupt on all channels.  There was no mandatory requirement for other technologies or services to become a part of EAS.
EAS officials recognized that a challenge in creating sound emergency communications policy was the role of state and local emergency communications plans. 11  State Emergency Communications Committees (SECCs) and Local Emergency Communications Committees (LECCs) were responsible for creating and implementing the plans.  The chairs for those committees verified that having proper plans ensured emergency personnel were better equipped during an emergency in how best to ensure safety of life and property.12  By ensuring that plans included knowledge on how best to assist individuals with disabilities during emergency evacuations an understanding of the accessibility concerns of people with disabilities would contribute to reduced lose of life.13  

COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGIES TO ASSIST PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

     Given the importance of emergency communications, persons with disabilities have a right to receive alerts in the most user friendly, applicable and commonly used modality of the individual.  An important approach to the development of inclusive emergency communications systems takes into account the design and implementation of appropriate user interfaces and a wide range of devices capable of receiving emergency communications. Comments to the FCC? s NPRM regarding EAS, included discussion on the benefits of wireless devices such as cell phones, and other digital communications reaching the widest possible target audience by increasing the diffusion of these devices to all users, especially those with disabilities.14  
Expanding wireless digital technologies15 such as DBS and DARS may be crucial in reaching out to people with vision disabilities, for whom radio is especially important.  Likewise, transmissions of emergency message text on the RBDS signal so that a person with a hearing impairment could see the message on a screen.  The deaf community has become significant adopters of 2-way text pagers such as the Blackberry.  Blind consumers can now purchase cell phones that read SMS messages to them.  Increased usage of these devices16 by the general public and the hearing and visually impaired also creates a viable avenue for sending emergency communications to these sorts of technology tools.  Broadcasting or multicasting of text messages to wireless devices, reverse 911 calls, or other systems could be used to notify users of wireless devices (including WiFi based devices), thus increasing access to emergency information to persons with disabilities as well as the general public.  Final!
lly, the creation of voluntary industry standards, such as the Alternative Interface Access Protocol has the potential to ease the burden of government regulations such as Section 255 of the Telecom Act of 1996 and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, by providing access to electronic and information technologies for people with disabilities.17  

NOW WHAT: POLICY OPPORTUNITIES

Digital interoperable features and flexible architecture of wireless technology can be adapted in multiple ways, not all of which can be predicted.  Thus the emergency communications community needs to maintain flexibility.  More than a decade ago, prototype warning systems were able to reach everyone regardless of the communications mode or whether that device was turned on or off18, the possibilities for using such devices today are even more critical as the public increasingly utilizes computers, personal digital assistants, cable, and car radios to receive information.  Next generation, low-cost wireless solutions has the potential to create a plethora of devices that are accessible, user friendly and offer emergency communications and services.19  The benefits of increased accessibility and in many cases universal design to emergency communications devices, will benefit both people with disabilities and those people without disabilities.  The public has a right to expect!
that policy makers and industry will work toward a common goal of providing emergency communications that truly is effective and can assist in the timely evacuation of all people in any emergency situation.  


1 The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Mobile Wireless Technologies for Persons with Disabilities is sponsored by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) of the U.S. Department of Education under grant number H133E010804.  The opinions contained in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or NIDRR.
2 http://www.redcross.org/pubs/dspubs/amdisasters2004.pdf  "America's Disasters 2004 - Meeting the Challenge,"  page 10.
3  U.S. Census Bureau. 2003. Disability Status: 2000.  Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce.  Issued March 2003, C2KBR-17.   
4  Census 2000.
5  Day, J., Population Projections of the United States by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1995 to 2050. U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996. Current Population Reports (P25-1130).
6 42 U.S.C. Section 12101 (b) (1).
7 42 U.S.C. Section 12101 (a) (3).
8 Executive Order: Individuals with Disabilities in Emergency Preparedness, signed by George W. Bush on July 22, 2004.
9 DHS, FEMA, USFA News in Review, Volume 2, No.5, June/July 2004, page 2 ?DHS to Lead Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities.?
10 See Amendment of Part 73, Subpart G, of the Commissionís Rules Regarding the Emergency Broadcast System, FO Docket 91-301/FO Docket 91-171, Report and Oder and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Field Tests paragraphs 16-25
11 In the Matter of Review of the Emergency Alert System EB Docket No. 04-296 (Released August 12, 2004).  See comments of the Wireless RERC filed October 29, 2004.
12 See FCC website, Enforcement Bureau, EAS Rules and Regulations, and SECC and LECC 1990? s EBS chair meetings.
13 See Wireless RERC comments at page 6.
14 See Wireless RERC comments at page 12.
15 EAS NPRM at ? 29.
16 169 million subscribers to wireless services in the US., CTIA Semi-annual Wireless Industry Survey, June 2004.
17 Interview with Ed Price of the V2 Committee and project director of the emerging wireless technology project of the Wireless RERC, August 2005.
18 The Consumer Electronics Association Public Alert Receiver and the NOAA Weather Radio have automatic turn on and off features, consequently adding this feature to new devices in the event of a serious emergency transmission would only serve to save more lives.  As noted earlier, the cost to manufacturer the chip was negligible.
19  Proceedings of the State of Technology conference of the Wireless RERC May 2004, Development Strategies to Advance the Creation of Wireless Devices, page 187.  


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