Safety Without Sound: Emergency Alerts for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students

MessageNet's Omni system consists of speakers, LED flashers and a clock. Image Credit: MessageNet
MessageNet's Omni system consists of speakers, LED flashers and a clock. Image Credit: MessageNet

Students from kindergarten through college understand an audible alert means something is wrong, and they need to evacuate a building that might be under threat. Whether it’s a fire, imminent tornado strike or active shooter, the siren prompts them to take action.

For the deaf and hard of hearing, the alerting takes on a different form. Traditionally, a strobe light has been used to flash a warning where students may not hear a siren. The strobe notification is intended to be detected even when the strobe is behind you.

“It will flash fast and bright enough to make you aware that the alarm is active,” said Doug Hoeferle, Honeywell Fire’s senior product marketing manager.

In general, the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities know—if they see that flashing strobe light—what they need to do, said fire protection engineer Robert Solomon of the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA).

But a flashing light lacks nuances that an audible public address system offers hearing students. Different emergencies require different responses. So a public address (PA) system can provide specifics as well as instructions. If weather is the issue, for example, students may have a different set of instructions than if there is an unapproved stranger in the building.

Schools need to be prepared for a variety of potential threats, Hoeferle said. One area of preparation, he said, is an emergency plan and ensuring that the school population knows how to react in case of an emergency. In accordance with code changes, a school may be required to conduct a mass notification risk assessment.

In the meantime, technology has evolved beyond the flash of a strobe light, Solomon said.

In some schools, digital signage scrolls information across its screen, but those kinds of alerts can be overlooked, and the instructions are not location-specific, such as playground versus cafeteria or classroom.

Solutions for these problems run from highly sophisticated infrastructure to a phone app, and schools with general populations as well as schools for the deaf and hard of hearing are choosing from several options.

“A strobe from the fire alarm system is the best tool to gain initial awareness,“ Hoeferle said, while digital signs, LED displays or clocks that support text display in classrooms and common areas can help identify what the danger is and what action needs to occur.

The common alerting protocol for textual or visual signs allows integration of new products through a school’s IT infrastructure and enable customized messages for a specific audience.

At the lowest cost end of solutions is an app that enables sending text messages to students and instructors, Solomon said. Many colleges already provide such apps to get the message out to a wide audience no matter where the individuals are. However, text messages often get ignored if the information is mundane (such as weather updates or even Amber Alerts) and they don’t provide site-specific details.

MessageNet offers flexible solutions that have evolved in the 15 years it has been providing technology to the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. It has systems that can operate either for those with hearing or vision differences, said Kevin Brown, MessageNet’s CEO.

The company offers technology that provides emergency alerting, mass notifications and even bells indicating the class period is over.

For example, the company recently released a digital screen, known as the Omni, using power over ethernet (PoE) to display a flashing light and instructions specific to each device’s location, along with audible and voice alerts for those with hearing or visual differences.

Emergencies are about a lot more than just fire today, Brown said. It could be an active shooter, a chemical spill, an individual with a health problem, or a pending weather emergency.

So rather than simply flashing a light, he said, the screens offer contextual input.

MessageNet was one of many companies that originally offered LED signage with scrolling messages. But, like NFPA’s Solomon, the company found there were limitations, Brown said, since they require individuals go to that screen, and read generic data.

“We wanted a product that would be affordable and that provided safety, security and communication” that could be developed at a cost low enough to be ubiquitous, he said.

After trying to find a company that would put together such a system, they opted to build it themselves. The resulting Omni system consists of speakers, LED flashers and a clock that can be displayed when there are no messages. A built-in camera in the device can also record what is happening around it. The Omni comes with a Bluetooth-based panic button. Pushing the button automatically turns on the camera. And while it uses PoE, it has a battery backup so that the screen can operate during a power outage.

To install, he said, all you need are two screws into the wall, a single Cat 5 cable, and if users want a larger screen than the 13-inch screen it comes with, a connection to another display. Users can display video and web content.

“From our perspective, it does answer the need in the marketplace,” Brown said. “You don’t even need to update ethernet infrastructure if you use Wi-Fi, just PoE for power.”

Actionable information can be displayed according to the location such as “lock and barricade your door,” in one area, and “evacuate the building” in a different part of the school. At a door, it can flash an indication as to whether that exit or another should be used.

Honeywell’s Unified Notification Platform helps enhance life safety, emergency response and situational awareness by integrating fragmented systems and processes to be managed on a centralized platform. It helps to communicate critical information more efficiently and effectively, Hoeferle said.

“It enables a holistic, mass-notification ecosystem with both on-premise and off-premise alerting,” he said.

It can provide mass notification for K-12 schools, colleges and universities, healthcare facilities and commercial buildings and works in combination with the existing fire alarm system.

In the meantime, most school systems still rely on simple flashers to provide an alerting mechanism to the entire population. Solomon doubts the flashing strobe light will be replaced, but adding digital signage offers a good supplement, he said. And schools could help subsidize the cost of the technology with advertising, as well as using it for school announcements.

“It doesn’t have to be dedicated to a single purpose,” he said.

The need to address the deaf and hard of hearing spills into the entire school community when there are potentials for accidents or incidents that could affect the sight or hearing of everyone in the area. Smoke can reduce visibility, while loud sounds can drown out audible alerting systems as well.

Just what kind of alerting is offered to the deaf and hard of hearing has not been mandated, said Solomon, so there is still plenty of opinion about the best system for each school. However, NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, describes the need for contrasting colors and indicates any alert should be visible from a certain distance.

The NFPA has several committees considering these issues now, Solomon said. These committees are scrutinizing some of the other notification options.

Emergencies go well beyond the boundaries of schools, of course, and there are federal guidelines about communicating with the public despite their hearing or vision status, said Linda Mastandrea, director of the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“We provide support in federally declared disasters only,” she said, and that can be in schools. “FEMA [together with its Office of Disability Integration and Coordination] is committed to ensuring our programs and services are available to, and accessible for, people with disabilities, including those with hearing disabilities.”

To date, that means manual support with interpreters. When it comes to alerting, however, she said they rely on local officials to disseminate emergency messages through their existing alert systems.

“Now the technology is out there,” Solomon said, buildings could serve to benefit by finding ways to adopt what’s available.

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