Tornadoes and the deaf community: Are you reaching all of your citizens?

The Republican's David Molnar captured the First Church of Monson's steeple laying in ruins on the ground.

In September, a deaf woman who blogs under the name “xpressive hands” posted a story about her experiences trying to gain critical life-saving crisis communications during major severe weather events and the earthquake in Central Pennsylvania. For her, the answer became twitter. This passage illustrates why.

“Twitter gave me up to the minute road closures from tweets by others trying to get back to their homes. Road after road was flooding as tweet after tweet appeared telling us which roads not to take. Because of these tweets, my husband was able to get off of work just in time to come through the secondary roads before they, too, were closed. At first, no one thought it was anything to be in a hurry about..then the flash floods started.”

One thing that stood out to me from her story was that she was not gaining the critical info from emergency response personnel but from others in the impacted area.  She states “Twitter is instant, accessible, and if you follow the right people, accurate.” That begs the question, shouldn’t we, in the emergency management community, be in that information stream?

Phd candidate Steph Jo Kent took the question of how the deaf community receives critical information a step further. What follows is her examination of how that community received information during an outbreak of tornados in Western Massachusetts on June 1, 2011. Where the above example provides anecdotal evidence and one person’s opinion, this research provides a more in depth analysis.  This is a cross post. She blogs at “Reflexivity“.

By: Steph Jo Kent “Tornadoes and the Deaf Community in Western Massachusetts”

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.

Warnings Reach More Hearing People than Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing

Warnings Reach More Hearing People than Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing

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.”

Deaf not alerted by friends or family? Counters common sense...

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. (Social Media and news beats out face-to-face communication.)

Social Media and News beats out Face-to-Face Communication of Warning

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.

Conflicting Signals

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.”

Protect Yourself!

The proper physical response:

  1. get indoors
  2. ideally in a basement or bathroom
  3. 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.”

Notification Stories

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.

  • “Never knew there was a tornado warning – nor did my friends at work who are hearing. We just got lucky.”
  • “I learned when I turned on TV after I saw dark, rain and hails. Tornado did not happen in my area.”
  • “Not till I got home from work. Saw weather channel tornado already passed”
  • “I did not know about the risk. I only heard about the tornado after the fact. I heard about it when a friend and I stopped to get out of the hail and rain at a small grocery store and my friend told me because she heard someone saying there was a tornado in Springfield.”
  • “Around 3 pm on Wednesday June 1st. I checked through my blackberry pager and that was how I found out.”
  • “I got text message from my bf that he informed me about it.”
  • “When I was in Framingham, I was told there was tornado warning. I wasn’t sure where but I drove back to Ware while tornado already hit Springfield. Me lucky!”
  • “Husband received by weather alert on his cell phone when we were on our way home from a doctors appointment.”

Information from this survey was shared at the
Western Region Homeland Security Action Council‘s
After Action Review Meeting on October 6, 2011
Holyoke, MA

13 responses to “Tornadoes and the deaf community: Are you reaching all of your citizens?

  1. Pingback: Tornados and the deaf community: Are you reaching all of your … | Emergency

  2. Thank you for recognizing a community of the most overlooked population of citizens, for researching how to best notify us in the event of an emergency and coming up with some innovative ideas for us!

    Thank you, also, for sharing my story and linking to my blog. I was pleased to see someone explain the importance of social media in our society today and how it makes news and events accessible to us, (Deaf and Hearing Impaired). I have found many Deaf prefer FaceBook, however, I personally find information gets lost in the long time lines of FaceBook. I like to have fast, immediate news upfront, and a link added for those who want more details – nothing beats Twitter when it comes to this.

    “Deaf Emergency and Weather” would be a GREAT Twitter account to follow, and you could shorten it to @DEW.. I wonder if it would be regional or national? Keep me posted if something like this becomes available, and I will share it on my blog to reach others in the Deaf Community in my own area.

    Xpressive Handz

  3. Thank you so much for the comment. I really appreciate you taking the time. Steph Jo Kent did a great job accessing how people like to receive information and how they did receive info during that tornado. I’m wondering if the deaf community would need a special twitter feed or if they would be just as comfortable following the regular, local emergency feed? The advantage of a deaf “feed” might be the ability to provide targeted information.
    Regarding whether or not something like @DEW would be regional or national, I think a local effort would be important. It is possible you could have @DEWDallas or @DEWBaltimore. Who would provide the info is the question, though. Local EMs are very stretched in terms of human resources and might not immediately want to take on this type of task–especially since quite a few are pretty new to social media. This might be something a volunteer organization might want to do. Of course I’m brainstorming a bit here–I also put the question out to the SMEM hashtag community, we’ll see what they say.

  4. @dew on Twitter is already taken; @demwx is open, in case semeone is looking at this. –John Butler, Oklahoma Crisis Mappers

  5. Great discussion!

    Kim really nailed the access issue with the question of who will be responsible for getting this info to the Deaf community? Emergency Managers are legally-required to do this, but the effort is daunting – not to mention (maybe?) a bit of resistance to having to do something ‘extra’? I know everyone is already stretched; this speaks to the need to support the overall system better. As innovations and improvements are made in any area (including warnings to the Deaf community), this will assist overall in the quality of protection and prevention, as well as basic resilience to bouncing back from severe weather events.

    Too bad @dew is already taken – love that suggestion Xpressivehands! But @demwx could work: Deaf Emergency Management Weather….. John and Xpressivehands – what about the difference between a hashtag and a handle/ID. Maybe the hashtag #dew is usable? Then it can tap the regular sources of EM info but aggregate in a Twitter Stream specific to the location, #dewPA or (if that’s not usable) #demwxMA.

    #DEW is much more Deaf-friendly, fyi.

  6. Thank you, John for checking into to that Twitter account name.

    Kim, I would suggest not just posting a public Tweet in the twitter feed, but to send a Direct Message (DM) to the list of Deaf and Hard of Hearing. A DM shows up immediately my IPhone, unlike having to check into my email to see if a message is there. Anything sent direct pops up in a dialogue box across the screen.

    As for which services would provide the information, I haven’t a clue, offhand.
    Great brainstorming.

  7. I really love the idea of a DM. That is a great idea. But again, that is something that will take human resources since DMs can’t really be automated. A hashtag is a good idea as well. I think, if I was to advise a community, I would tell them to form a twitter list or “group” of those individuals in the community that are deaf that are also on twitter. The EM could then follow that group and see if people respond to the critical information they are putting out. This would work in conjunction with the hashtag. It would also give the EM a way to more easily sort and prioritize those people’s questions. The group list would also give be a quick reference if they wanted to go ahead and send DMs.
    Lots to think about.

  8. Hey Kim, why can’t DMs be automated? Someone needs to write an app for that!

    Using a hashtag as a means of communication between the EM and Deaf community works once people know something is going on. The critical gap is making sure Deaf people get the warning in as timely a fashion as the non-deaf population. THAT is where the legal liability comes in, and where creative thinking is needed – to figure out how to leverage the human resources necessary for getting that system developed, installed, tested, etc.

    It might be that other aspects of emergency management as it relates to the Deaf community comes first, such as integrating sign language interpreters into shelters, evacuation plans, hospitals etc. It could be that first responders need more exposure to communicating “in real life” with Deaf people before they can think critically and seriously about how to solve the warning question.

    There’s no one size fits all answer, at least not yet! And there’s more than one dimension to the challenge, too.

  9. That’s true, there’s no one size fits all, but by starting with at least something, it gets the ball rolling. And something is better than nothing. Good question, Stephanie, why isn’t there an app for that? We have some very savvy Deaf people in the technology field, we should bring them in on this discussion, too, and the rest of the community.

  10. Pingback: NVRC Website » Tornadoes and the deaf community

  11. You know the National Test Day is coming up, right? What if we use a Twitter hashtag – perhaps we should surrender and accept @okfires suggestion of #demwx …. I may have a lead on someone who could collect and analyze the Tweets for us (no promises, it is a friend of a friend), but if we move quick (one week!) we might be able to create a huge national sample of Tweets from the Deaf community responding to whatever info they get about the National Test…..

  12. Pingback: Karen’s PR & Social Media Blog » The Deaf Community & Emergency Preparedness: Ongoing social media and crisis communication research

  13. Pingback: Twitter in Crisis: This Deaf Woman’s “Best Friend” | Strella Social Media

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