Last spring and summer was windy in Massachusetts: a gust front on May 4th, possible microbursts on May 26-27, and then four people died in the seven tornadoes that tore across Massachusetts in early June.
Using a regional email list to contact a convenience sample, a brief, spontaneous survey was used to gather information about the Deaf community’s experience with the system of Emergency Management in the region. As far as I’m aware, no Deaf people were adversely affected by the tornadoes, which means there are no particular experiences with First Responders to report – good or bad (this time). Nonetheless the survey generated some interesting data which might be useful in generating hypotheses for future testing and eventually guiding design for better warning systems, improved emergency preparation, and the smooth integration of emergency response service delivery to people with so-called “functional needs” or otherwise requiring “additional assistance.”
Demographics and Timing
Ten Deaf and seventeen non-deaf (“hearing”) people responded to the survey. They live and work all over the western part of the state (see map). The sample is too tiny for statistical significance, but shows that three times as many non-deaf “Hearing” people learned of the tornado warning before the tornadoes formed, and twice as many Deaf learned of the tornadoes only after they had occurred.
Sources of Warning
Contrary to what one would expect based on Deaf cultural norms, the community grapevine was not effective in alerting Deaf people to the Tornado Warning. While this may be a feature of the relative isolation of Deaf people living in the rural part of the state, it definitely highlights the importance of making sure mainstream messages are also channeled directly and conspicuously in a manner to catch “the deaf eye.”
People who did receive the Warning were likely to learn about it from several sources. Fifty percent reported learning about the tornadoes from more than one media source. Being ‘plugged in’ to various media might increase the chances that you will receive a Warning in a timely fashion.
As mentioned above, these results suggest directions for further investigation. In addition to the numbers, several respondents added comments or questions, providing some qualitative hints about where to focus future efforts at improving communication with the Deaf community regarding emergency warnings.
Below, I will post the brief explanations people gave about how they learned about the tornadoes. One story caught my attention because of a similarity with a story from a survivor of the Joplin, MO tornado. The National Weather Service (NWS) Service Assessment reports variations in the perception of risk by residents in Joplin based upon “signals” from the environment. Some of the signals from the business community were in conflict:
…the restaurant shut its doors and refused entry, this resident perceived the threat of severe weather as real and commented during the interview that he did not want to be in his car. Upon arriving at another restaurant close by, however, his perception of threat was diminished because business at this second establishment was carrying on as normal: he was escorted to a table and ordered a meal. (p. 6)
Here is one of the respondents to the survey about the tornadoes in western Massachusetts:
“I went shopping in the town of Hadley… and noticed the darkening of the skies…while I was still in the store.. When I got out.. it was thundering and lightening very badly.. and I went on to shop at 2 more stores.. nearby.. not realizing the tornado was hitting Spfld.”
Hadley is not one of the communities struck by a tornado, so the comparison between the two experiences is not tight. The point about perception and awareness of risk based on signals, however, is crucial: what is the most desirable role of businesses in regard to public safety?
Confusion, Questions and (some) Clarity
“I knew nothing about what to do in a tornado. In fact at my school (work) there were disagreements about what to do among the school leaders. I heard about the same issues from other people in other work places. New England is prepared for a lot of things but not tornadoes.”
Another person was using the local transportation for people with disabilities:
“PVTA driver appeared not aware of tornado in premise. I was in van and tornado went across road by just right after van went thru. We surprise after my stop and people pointing to tornado.”
The proper physical response:
- get indoors
- ideally in a basement or bathroom
- you should already have an emergency kit prepared for each member of your family and pets!
How to get Warnings?
“I feel it would be easier if we receive a special message like “Deaf Emergency and Weather” so that way deaf people can read the word “Deaf” to help people to prepare quickly to save themselves.”
Deaf people compose a population that has no systematic, institutionalized, reliable means of receiving timely and accurate information about an unfolding disaster. Suggestions include using pagers, email or text alert to cell phone, video sign mail through video relay operators, and a call-in number for updates. Few respondents to this survey knew how to sign up with their Town for special alerts (most Towns in western MA do not even offer this service), and others were unsure how to confirm their inclusion in such a system:
“Where would it indicate that I have signed up?” (as one survey respondent asked), is a simple question with a long history:
“Of course we all know that the deaf people are few and far apart in rural Western Mass and the hearing authorities hope and pray that somehow the deafʼs hearing friends would notify them. Sadly many hearing people knew nothing also.”
The View from an Emergency Planner
I have been invited and welcomed into some planning, evaluation and review sessions of emergency planners and emergency responders as they have debriefed and critiqued what worked and what could be improved. Overall, the system of emergency response functioned incredibly well: loss of life was minimized and societal processes got ‘back to normal’ in a quick and resilient manner. What I have observed, informally, is a network of strong, respectful, and collegial relationships with built-in capacity and motivation to improve.
First Responders are justified in feeling satisfied that they did the best they could under the circumstances, and – impressively – everyone that I have met to date has the goal in mind to do even better in the next emergency. These tornadoes were a powerful event whose effects will persist, both in terms of personally-experienced tragedy of losing loved ones and recovering from property damage, but also in terms of addressing gaps where preparation, communication and response are still relatively weak.
For instance, Kathleen Conley Norbut, the Medical Reserve Corp Coordinator for Western Massachusetts and School Project Manager for IRAA (Individuals Requiring Additional Assistance) Project in Western MA, reflected on the opportunity during a “School Emergency Preparedness” Conference about three weeks after the tornadoes.
On June 1st, a lot of things changed for a lot of people in this region. Some of us [responsible for emergency planning & response] were close to an impact region. Those of us who didn’t lose property, are still being impacted emotionally, physically. We had a “No Notice tornado” in a region where people by and large don’t believe it can happen…. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, caught in a pink tule dress. We learned first-hand the havoc that a tornado can wreak….. Brimfield, Monson, Oxford, Springfield, Sturbridge, Westfield and Wilbraham …. We still have a daily reminder of how devastating this natural force can really be.
How fast it unfolded:
- MEMA issues alert: “we’re watching this thing”
- called son…. bad connection, told him would try again later
- “at that point, things had just unleashed, communications became extraordinarily difficult”
- the town of Monson’s communication center, the EOC, got wiped out – when your response center, the technology, all you’ve practiced, the manuals, everything gets obliterated, it adds complications to what you’ve already considered
Now [afterwards], all the ‘what if’s’ come up – what if it hops ‘here’ or ‘there’, etc. Tornadoes are random, not only is the violence of a tornado awesome – I don’t have words for it, I am awestruck….. it’s path is so random….
- WHAT IF it happened at school release time?
- WHAT IF it happened when youth with disabilities are boarding special transportation?
- WHAT IF it happened after kids are en route home?
- WHAT IF it happened when there wasn’t a communication system?
In keeping with this mode of “what if” thinking, especially about the timing of an emergency event, an interesting observation was made by one of the survey respondents:
“Most deaf have a pager so that seems to be the best way to reach them – especially during the day. In evenings most people are using computers and watching TV. Local TV stations do a good job of warning the audience so that part is ok. It’s the daytime situation that needs to be looked at.”
This survey is unique in that it represents a a collection of experiences from members of the Deaf community in regard to one specific incident. Their particular stories about receiving or not receiving a warning message are familiar to anyone involved with emergency response because these are common experiences shared by people of any and every social identity group.
At the same time, however, there is a distinction regarding communication that requires special and dedicated attention: there are several things in regard to effectively including Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people within the emergency response system that need to be looked at.
Information from this survey was shared at the
Western Region Homeland Security Action Council‘s
After Action Review Meeting on October 6, 2011