Emergency Warning and Community Response: The Edge of Technology and Culture

It was a tiny pop quiz in the midst of a comprehensive examination.

First Responders do reach out to the Deaf community
First Responders reaching to the Deaf community

During last November’s nationwide test of FEMA’s public warning system, an action research study (#DEMX) was conducted to assess the communication potential of social media. The goal was to find a way to bridge the longstanding divide between “people of the eye” who use American Sign Language and emergency responders who rely on their ears. From the Deaf point-of-view, these “hearing people” are dependent on sound.

A dedicated group of social media pioneers keeps pushing the envelope of public communication within the field of emergency management. Meanwhile, the American Deaf community remains essentially neglected despite generations of struggle and decades-old accessibility rights legislation.

in all of the years of researching and taking courses / training in crisis communications – one group has not been mentioned as much as others.  This audience group is the deaf community. ~ Karen Freberg

Tweeting against Historical Trends

One popular social media tool for emergency warnings is Twitter. It is unclear how many Deaf people know about this timely and current source of information about emergencies of all kinds. Meteorologists are using Twitter to warn populations in their local media markets about serious weather events, and some emergency responders are using Twitter as part of crisis communication and disaster response. Figures 1 &  2 show a key result from the #DEMX experiment run during the November 2011 national “Emergency Alert System” test. Overall, although information about the Twitter-based #DEMX test spread, there was very little crossover between the two groups: Deaf citizens shared information within the Deaf community, and emergency management planners and responders shared the information within their community. This leads to a conclusion regarding how hard it is to stimulate conversation between communities who have an (apparently entrenched) history of ineffective communication.

However, in the course of a short campaign, the #DEMX Tweetstream garnered 163 unique users, and the Prezi explaining the idea (in English and ASL) got 1,500 hits! The information spread, but it was decontextualized from the relationships that need to be built among First Responders and members of the signing Deaf community.

Strategy (Action Research Methodology)

Few Deaf Tweeters "cross over" to the First Responder tweetstream
Few Deaf Tweeters "cross over" to the First Responder tweetstream

An already existing Twitter community using the hashtag, #SMEM (for social media emergency management), was introduced to a new hashtag, #DEMX (for deaf emergency management of variable “x”). The #DEMX hashtag was invented for this experiment, so it had no pre-existing user base. A late-deafened blogger and tweeter, Joyce Edmiston (@expressivehandz), spearheaded spreading the #DEMX hashtag among her followers. Using a text analysis software tool, we were able to track the spread of news about this social media experiment in both communities and break down the results.

Findings: A small but dedicated leading edge

In the nine days of monitoring (from November 2-11, 2011, with the test day on November 9), the 163 users in the #DEMX tweetstream gathered 765 tweets, while the #SMEM tweetstream garnered 5,759 tweets, generated by  1,135 unique users. We were interested in the tweets that included both hashtags. Barely 1/2 of 1% of #DEMX tweets included the #SMEM hashtag; and only .01% of #SMEM tweets included the #DEMX hashtag. Research team member Joe Delfino of DiscoverText writes, “Unfortunately, the mass crossover of Tweets that we had envisioned did not occur.” By “drilling down” into the data, however, we were able to generate some findings that, combined with knowledge of the historical basis of the overall challenge, confirms hypotheses worth testing in another round of Twitter-based action research.

4:1 Ratio Hearing to Deaf

In the #DEMX tweetstream, there were 26 unique users who included the #SMEM hashtag. After eliminating tweets from members of the research team there were a total of 28 tweets from 23 unique users. Of these 23 unique users, 20 are not deaf – they are hearing people associated in one way or another with emergency management.  Only three deaf tweeters “crossed over” to the emergency management community tweetstream. Some reasons for this terribly low percentage are explored below.

In the #SMEM tweetstream, there were 17 unique users who included the #DEMX hashtag, again, after eliminating tweets by research team members,  tweets including both hashtags were sent by 13 unique users: 9 hearing and 4 deaf, repeating the pattern in which more hearing people reached out toward the Deaf community than Deaf people reached back to the “Hearing” world of emergency management.

Concerning? Yes. Disheartening? No!

Obviously these sample sizes are too small for statistical significance. However, they do suggest some generalizations that could be formulated into concrete hypotheses and studied on a more robust scale. One issue involves whether the Deaf American linguistic minority of American Deaf Culture can be convinced that the dominant culture actually cares. In promoting this action research project, I created an online presentation, Deaf Eye on Emergency!, which describes the context of the national emergency alert system test using visual imagery, written English and several videoclips of commentary using American Sign Language. The presentation garnered over 1500 views during the nine-day research window and 1,846 as of this posting. English translations of the ASL clips are available now so that non-signers can know and respond to the explanations and ideas expressed in the video clips.

Creating New Relationships

Although good efforts and success stories do circulate, there is no commonly-recognized and widely-used medium of communication (yet) that satisfactorily mediates the sight-sound perceptual distinction between “People of the Eye” and “Hearing” people.  Written English and spreading more information are perceived as “the answer.” While both of these strategies are necessary, without an interaction strategy to cultivate and redefine the inherited perception of neglect, systemic improvements in Deaf preparedness and contribution to emergency response efforts cannot occur.

An Interaction Strategy for Emergency Preparedness

Individual Deaf people often experience being told to wait while someone tries to figure out how to communicate with them, and then (usually) delivered sub-par and minimal information rather than being fully engaged as intelligent and competent human beings who can help resolve aspects of the situation, whatever it is. Historically, the legacies of discrimination and prejudice have convinced many members of Deaf culture that Hearing people really do not care about them. Serious effort needs to be strategically planned and exercised in order to overcome this unfortunate dynamic. It can be done, and if done well, crucial skills, knowledge, and benefits of resilience will flow from the Deaf community into the larger fabric of American society.

17 thoughts on “Emergency Warning and Community Response: The Edge of Technology and Culture”

  1. I am much less guilty of not caring about the deaf community as I am guilty of assuming someone far better qualified than me is taking care of them in emergency situations. “There are agencies for that” type mentality. Yes, it could be argued I don’t care. But more often than not, I don’t trust myself to do the appropriate caring for. 

    Thank you for the reminder.

  2. This statement is of enormous significance: ” Historically, the legacies of discrimination and prejudice have convinced many members of Deaf culture that Hearing people really do not care about them. Serious effort needs to be strategically planned and exercised in order to overcome this unfortunate dynamic. It can be done, and if done well, crucial skills, knowledge, and benefits of resilience will flow from the Deaf community into the larger fabric of American society.”
    Working with IRAA Emergency Preparedness the Western Mass model has been to reach out to community based organizations and train their staff on personal and family EP with the objective of increasing resilence of the work force that will also implement training, conversations, models for consumers.
    I would like to invite People of the Eye, to consider joining a Medical Reserve Corps unit in your community/region. We are the folks who staffed the shelters during the 2011 emergency/disaster events (ya, plural!). People of the Eye would benefit from the training for MRC volunteers and your skills would assist ASL and other consumers in a shelter or other public health response. http://www.wmmrc.org. Thank you for sharing your gifts Stephanie.

  3. Kathleen,

    Thank you for extending the invitation to the Deaf community to become part of Emergency Response efforts!

    The challenge will be – as it has always been – paying for interpreters. There are many important reasons to use professional interpreters (trained and certified by RID-NAD), including:

    1) so that Deaf trainees can benefit from the full details of instruction and
    2) so that hearing (not deaf) trainees and instructors can learn how to use interpreters to build relationships with their future colleagues
    3) so that Deaf and Hearing people can fully interact with each other during the training and thus build trust for communicating with each other during emergency response – when there may or may not be interpreters available all the time.

    I would like to preempt the assumption that professional interpreters should volunteer for these trainings. That attitude is really insulting to Deaf people as well as to interpreters – the idea that interpreters should volunteer is based in assumptions that accessible communication is either an unaffordable luxury or possible only as an act of charity.

    My apologies for the blunt and direct statement. There is nothing wrong with volunteering! The problem is how to design a language and communication system that can handle multilingualism and foster systemic resiliency. The answer is not only technical (no power = no technology). Interpreting occurs at the human social level, this requires the proactive integration of Interpreter Strike Teams throughout the Emergency Planning cycle, including the Incident Command Structure and beginning now, with mitigation.

  4. Respectfully,

    Regarding your assertion that professional interpreters should not volunteer for these trainings, is in my opinion, no different than the many other highly skilled professionals who are volunteering for emergency preparedness training and working for no pay during emergency response. The invitation I extended was stated and intended with the spirit of outreach and mutual benefit. I stated that “People of the Eye would benefit from the training for MRC volunteers (e.g. 1. Personal and Family preparedness, 2. Incident Command System, 3. Psychological First Aid) and your skills would assist ASL and other consumers in a shelter or other public health response.”

    As you know, I fight hard for professional recognition and commensurate compensation for women, and service providers….I practice what I preach and pay my staff well, continually advocating for the value of services. Easily, 30%-40% of my time is unpaid in any given year. I consider myself a highly educated, experienced and trained professional. During deployment last year, I worked over $4,200 unpaid hours (June), July ($3,000), August ($3,000) due to contract expiration and bureaucratic delays. If ASL interpreters want to venture into the world of EP, they need to be aware that uncompensated professional services are the norm rather than the exception. Just sayin!

    There is value in this discussion with exploring if there is a middle ground for emergency preparedness, professional compensation, no-cost EP training and volunteerism.

  5. Hey Kathleen – thanks for continuing the conversation!

    The sincerity of your invitation was never in doubt. My intention was to support your invitation to members of the Deaf community to become proactively involved with emergency preparedness and response. I am aware that you would do whatever you could to support any Deaf person who wanted to join a Medical Reserve Corps training.

    Strategically, I wrote to a larger community of emergency planners and responders who might not be as savvy as you about these matters. For instance, there will be interpreting costs: therefore it is crucial to build the logic of language access as two-fold: meeting the requirement of equal access to services for the Deaf and generating long-term, broad-based societal resilience. The invitation you have offered is necessary and valuable, but it must be backed up in order not to turn into an empty gesture. I know you don’t want that!

    There are relational dynamics among all the necessary players that must be considered. For instance, Deaf people have often been invited to do or join all kinds of activities without the requisite language access being provided. This means (typically) that new invitations will be greeted skeptically until follow-through is demonstrated.

    Also, the relationship between Deaf people and interpreters is complicated by a difficult history. While it is common to assume a linkage between professional interpreters and the Deaf community, the connection is often tenuous. I wish I could tell you that there are hundreds or thousands of American Sign Language/English Interpreters out here eager to join the Emergency Management field – but I do not know if this motivation exists on a wide scale. I am sure, however, that there are plenty of good-hearted, altruistic-minded interpreters who would like to become proficient in Emergency Management Interpreting if it supplemented their income.

    This is not a bad thing, in and of itself. This is how professions and the economy grows – there is a need, people interested in meeting that need become qualified to do so, and then these professionals are compensated for having paid the costs of earning that qualification and subsequently meeting the need.

    Your situation as a paid professional in Emergency Management who donates additional hours on top of your regular work needs to become the norm for interpreters in Emergency Management as well. Being recognized and remunerated as a professional member of coordinated emergency response teams is the baseline from which professional interpreters can then choose ( as you and many other trained professionals do) to volunteer more time ‘above and beyond.’ This is the only systemic way to guarantee a deep and flexible foundation of language access for American Deaf citizens.

    As our nation continues to gear up to the inevitable increasing frequency of natural disasters (the trend is already absolutely obvious), emergency management as a field needs to evolve. More skilled people are needed who not only know how to work as part of coordinated team efforts but are also prepared to make themselves available during a crisis (leaving their own families, friends, pets, etc to care for others). Interpreters are a prime example of a core group of practice professionals who need to be integrated into the overall Incident Command Structure of emergency response.

    The challenge is creative thinking and innovative budgeting. Legislation, for instance, that grants “temporary emergency responder” designation to nursing home, home health care, and independent and supported living aides should be created and pursued immediately so that these essential workers can be compensated for coming to work during emergencies. The same bill could set a standard for emergency/overtime pay comparable to public services workers, which ranges from time & 1/2 to 2 & 1/2 times the regular hourly rate (depending on the agency/service and whether the event occurs on a holiday), and mandate this as a federally reimbursable cost for declared emergencies. A provision for non-declared emergencies that meet a lower threshold should also be created. Emergencies are always local. Until local laborers are brought into the fold of the entire emergency life cycle, it will be impossible to achieve resilience on a scale and at quality that protects all citizens regardless of their degree of vulnerability.

    Nothing short of protecting everyone should be acceptable. The requirements of achieving such protection must be accepted and vigorously pursued.

    Kathleen, I am optimistic that we can seed and promote this kind of forward-thinking. It might mean cycling back through the old, standard arguments, but we know that necessary changes always meet resistance. Let’s keep the constraints in mind as guides for navigating proactively and with wisdom into the uncharted future.

    Best Regards,

  6. Are there any examples you know of of jurisdictions that are doing a good job of being prepared for working with deaf citizens during an emergency?

  7. Hi Justine,

    I know of a few places where they are doing a lot of work to make sure ASL/English interpreters are provided to the Deaf community and other people who use sign language because of some kind of hearing loss.

    For instance the Department of Disability in Los Angeles is a nationally-recognized leader. You can read about Angela Kaufman in this article on Interpreting in Emergency Situations: This is Not Business as Usual from the RID Views. Rick Pope, who is interviewed in that article, is leading an initiative in Georgia. And the Florida state association of RID (Florida Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf) has been running special trainings in CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) for FL state ASL/English interpreters over the last year. Another CERT training adapted for the emergency response specialization of ASL/English interpreters was held in in NJ one or two years ago. I’m not sure of the dates or the exact sequence, but it seems LA was first to get serious about providing appropriate communication accommodations for people who are fluent in languages other than English or who don’t hear spoken English.

  8. Thanks – that’s helpful, and I’ll look into the programs those states have going. How about research or stats? Have you come across anything good that talks to this issue? thanks!

  9. Hi Justine,

    I’m wondering, from your point of view, if you could define or describe what is “this issue”? Are you referring to what you asked in your first question (above) about “being prepared for working with deaf citizens during an emergency”? Or are you referring to something else, maybe something more specific? I just want to clarify, so that I know what question it is that I’m answering!

    Any luck reaching Angy or Rick or Terri (in Florida)? They really are the leading edge in face-to-face, in-person language mediation . What came to mind when I read your question about “research or stats” was learning that there has never been a nationwide survey of native users of American Sign Language. I interpret this as a last vestige of oppression – the exact labels are “audism” and “oralism.” The first concept refers to privileging hearing (the sense of sound) and the second concept refers to privileging speech (moving the most complicated structure of muscles in the human body in order to produce sound for somebody else). Both words were coined by Deaf people in order to describe the systematic discrimination and awful prejudice they experienced on a daily basis just trying to live their lives.

    It is a lot better now than it was before, the discrimination is illegal (even though a bunch still happens), and the negative attitudes have lightened somewhat. Probably the most significant and dramatic indicator of social progress is that deaf children don’t get hit for signing any more. I am not sure how old you are; I am nearly fifty. Deaf people my age were prohibited from signing to each other during school hours. This would sortof be like if your parental unit banned you from talking, texting and Tweeting – let alone playing with Facebook. Always. Every day. For more than half of the day. The part of the day when you were supposed to be learning. And isn’t learning hard enough without trying to figure out what people are even saying about the subject? Wait – what is the subject? Communication is really really really tricky when you don’t know/have access to the language people are using around you.

    The issues facing deaf youth today are challenging in other ways.

    So, when you ask me such questions as who is “doing a good job” or if there is “anything good” going on in the field of emergency preparedness and response management with the American Deaf community, I have to tell you that I am not really sure! First, for instance, what is the baseline benchmark: “good” in comparison to what reference point or standard? As I explained, there is a great deal of effort, planning, and advocacy going on in order to someday provide appropriate and sufficient emergency communication for the deaf and hard-of-hearing but I am not sure that NIMS or the ICS has any way to measure what’s happening on the ground.

  10. Forgive me for jumping in on your reflections, Steph! I want to amplify something you brought up.

    As a professional emergency manager for more than 30 years, I have struggled with this whole idea of “the response system” being responsible for the success of a response. I truly struggle with this. We need to step back and recognize NIMS/ICS for what it is: a structure and process to systematically organize response operations and resources on the ground, at the site of the emergency. It, in and of itself, does not apply to citizens’ actions and it certainly does not intend to make necessary accommodations for those needing them.

    This is why the prevailing attitude amongst the first response community is that “the planning and response is for the 95% of the population that does not require additional assistance.” Combine this with the fundamental principle that we are responsible for ourselves for the first 72 hours (a baseline assumption that the American people have lost sight of in the world of instant gratification, but that is another missive). So – ICS is not intended to address how the Deaf/HoH are accommodated in an emergency and the system assumes that everyone, including the Deaf and HoH and others with Functional and Access Needs (including navigators and caregivers), take care of themselves for 72 hours.

    So where does that leave us with integrating the huge need for IRAA/F&AN folks to be prepared in an emergency???? This is, to steal directly from Steph – a wicked problem. If the system is not intended to directly address this – what is?

    I must confess, despite the fact that I come out of the Federal system and still support it through my consulting work, I have come to understand that this is NOT a situation for there to be a top-down solution. The whole community concept is the answer here. It has to be, unless we wish to consign control of our safety to an external system. I do not. So, to the degree that citizens have the ability to learn to keep themselves safe, government should assist that with education and training and support of programs that build strong communities.

    And, to answer Justine’s question, there are communities where “good” stuff is happening. My bet is that in rural areas of the country you will find many examples where assistance to individuals requiring additional assistance is fully integrated into a communities’ actions naturally and organically, without intervention from external organizations, governmental or otherwise.

    In urban areas, it is obviously much more difficult: the physical structures in which people live – large buildings, gated communities, etc., don’t make for strong connections among individuals. In the cities, there is a deeper focus on self and the close circle of friends and family. We know the names of characters on tv but not the names of our neighbors 3 houses down the street. This cocooned way of living has hurt emergency response (and preparedness.)

    To address it, government has said, let there be places of refuge. IRAA should go there and first responders will find you. Do not attempt to be responsible for yourself. Unfortunately, we have heard way too many stories where this simply has not worked.

    This is a huge gap and goes to the heart of the issue underlying Justine’s question and Steph’s response: We have not set a reasonable BEHAVIORAL standard for success in getting people with functional and access needs prepared. We have set standards for lots of other things: how many places of refuge in a building, response times, ways to count building inhabitants – lots of quantitative standards that can be sliced and diced and measured.

    What we have not been willing to tackle is our behavior as humans: i believe that I have an obligation to be of service, to assist and to make the place I live safe. I also believe that all people (and their navigators and caretakers) have an obligation to figure out how to be minimally prepared. And that is where you should look for success – where projects are happening that are changing behavior through education, training, practice, reinforcement, gamification and other ways to help people understand how to behave in an emergency.

  11. Thank you both for some great thoughts. I’ve been trying to reach Angy, Rick and Terri. Angy I just get a generic voicemail so not sure she is getting my messages. Found an email for Rick but no phone and no response yet. Sent an email to Terri too and just found a phone number so I will trying calling too. If you have any better numbers or contact info for Angy or Rick, please let me know. I’d love to be able to talk with them. thanks!

  12. Hey Justine! Word is you had an awesome phone interview with Angy, Rick and Terri last week. Do we get a preview? Or any more questions before you go to press? Just curious!

  13. Sorry for delayed response – many deadlines lately! Yes, the interview with the group was awesome!! I can’t provide a preview per my editor, but I believe it will be in the September issue. I will send a link once its up. Thanks again for all your help!!

  14. I’m curious..can we find out more about the protocols that were followed (or not) at world trade centers that day? Some people in wheelchairs got out safely. Did they use a different stairway?

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