None of the 1,400 residents of Greenburg, Kansas, will forget the night of May 5, 2007. It was the night their small town was wiped off the map by a monster tornado. The destruction was everywhere. Well-built homes looked as though they had exploded. Trees were toppled or striped bare of leaves, branches and even bark. Cars and trucks were tossed across the sidewalks along Greenburgs Main Street. On the edge of town, a minivan stuck out of the roof of one of the few partially-standing buildings that remained in what was, just the day before, a quiet prairie town. That night 95% of Greenburg was destroyed.
The F-5 twister claimed 10 lives as it cut a mile-wide path of destruction across Kiowa County. Dozens more were injured. But despite the loss of property and lives, the tight-knit community was lucky. Lucky that more people hadnt been killed.
Survivors heard the warning sirens approximately 20 minutes before the tornado reached Greenburg, a sound commonly heard during the summer months in towns along Tornado Alley. That 20-minute warning siren provided residents with enough time to take cover in basements, storm cellars and safe rooms built within some homes.
When emergencies such as the terrible events of May 5th occur, people today often receive warnings that can save lives thanks to improved technologies in weather forecasting and communications. Many communities maintain warning systems to alert residents of everything from a chemical spill, to hurricanes to a killer tornado. These warning systems usually include:
- Televised alerts with warning sounds to get the attention of viewers
- Radio alerts
- Reverse 911 systems that auto-dial telephones to warn of impending danger
- Civil defense sirens
- Police and firefighter loudspeakers
Unfortunately, all of these warning systems rely on sound cues to alert listeners of the impending danger, leaving residents who are hard of hearing without access to alerts and without that all important, critical time to react appropriately to the warnings. The fact is that hearing impaired citizens are more likely to make unfortunate decisions in emergency situations due to a lack of information concerning the nature and extent of the danger.
What makes this situation even worse is that the technology exists to make sure that people who are hard of hearing receive warnings, know about emergencies and know how to respond to the danger. The problem is, many broadcasters and emergency management officials ignore these technological advances due to factors of cost, implementation or the lack of awareness that these warning techniques exist.
All television stations, cable companies and even satellite TV companies have a legal responsibility to caption local emergency news. Today, most broadcast outlets provide a crawl announcement that runs along the bottom of the TV screen during times of emergency. However, this visual cue often lacks important information delivered by on air newscasters concerning the nature of the impending emergency and what to do about it, despite the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulations requiring TV broadcasters to provide all essential emergency information visually.
The best way to deliver televised warnings is through the use of a feed to a real-time captioning device or an on-site stenocaptioner which is activated in times of emergency. These devices provide all critical information in visual form, including the nature of the disaster, shelter locations, road closings and evacuation directives.
Emergency Warning Systems
Governments at the federal, state and local levels have a legal obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to adapt existing emergency warning systems to make them accessible to hard of hearing citizens. Many communities and all states maintain some form of emergency management agency that is responsible for upgrading existing warning systems.
Communities that are not in compliance with these requirements should be notified of their legal responsibilities under the ADA and take immediate steps to rectify the lack of accessibility to emergency information.
Adaptive Radio Receivers
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is the federal agency responsible for the timely delivery of emergency weather information. NOAA Weather Radio (NWR), in conjunction with the National Weather Service (NWS), has played a leading role in the dissemination of warnings, watches and other essential weather emergency information through the use of modified radio receivers that provide text messaging for hard of hearing individuals. Adaptive receivers are available for purchase at many electronics retail outlets.
These special needs radio receivers are equipped with a strobe light and a loud, auditory signal to alert users of dangers. An LCD (liquid crystal display) indicates to the user the nature of the emergency. Pillow vibrators and bed shakers can also be attached to these warning devices. Some models also include an adapter that enables the devices owner to use the receiver in a car. Information provided by these devices is limited, however, to the type of warning or emergency.
More sophisticated devices are available, delivering the entire text of the emergency warning via satellite feed. These devices and the feeds are currently available on a subscription basis only, but, they deliver warnings even to remote areas.
Perhaps the most effective means of alerting those with hearing problems of potential danger is through the use of pagers that vibrate when a warning is issued. These devices provide the full text of the emergency messaging with regular updates. The service is available without cost in all 50 states through the Emergency Email Network.
Users of these devices register by county so they receive only those warnings that apply to local geography. Emergency information is delivered to both the pager itself and to the consumers computer email account. To learn more about this warning system visit http://www.emergencyemailnetwork.com
Residents who are hearing impaired and their advocates must go proactive to ensure that emergency warning systems are 100% accessible to all members of the community. With budgets stretched to the max, a town is more likely to Astroturf the football field than it is to spend that same money upgrading in-place warning systems. Its up to the community to see that the towns budgeting authorities get it.
Its the law. In fact, it is several laws and regulations from various federal and state agencies, and if local and regional government officials choose to ignore these laws, advocates for the hearing impaired and the hearing impaired individuals themselves must educate town officials and the rest of the community about these warning options and the life-saving benefits they provide.
This means attending local budget meetings. It means lobbying state legislators for more state funding. It means taking action in court against broadcasters and local governments that fail to adhere to the rules and regulations that are already in place. Its easy to file a complaint against a broadcaster that doesnt provide captioning of complete emergency information. The FCC will investigate and, indeed, if enough people file complaints, the broadcaster will pony up the small, extra cost of offering closed captioning in crisis situations.
It also means protecting yourself if you have hearing problems. Purchase a pager and pay the small subscription fee for complete text of warnings and alerts. Obtain a weather warning system designed for the hearing impaired and work out arrangements with neighbors to provide you with warnings and updates (assuming its safe to do so). Its unreasonable to expect government to solve all of the problems associated with accessibility to weather warnings.
Go proactive, protect yourself and help protect your hearing impaired neighbors. Together, we can make a difference that may someday save the lives of members of our community.