The Emergency Exercise at the NEXES Accessibility Workshop

The first NEXES Exercise was conducted as part of the NEXES Workshop on Accessibility, hosted by the European Union of the Deaf and Omnitor in Sheveningen, The Hague, on May 19th.

The Workshop addressed the theme of accessibility in emergency response. As well as the members of the NEXES Consortium, 45 members of the European Union of the Deaf were present, including the presidents of numerous national deaf associations. As such, the Workshop represented an unprecedented opportunity to engage directly with members of the deaf community, and to secure valuable feedback on their experiences of dealing with emergency services, and on the advancements considered by the NEXES Research and Innovation Action. Their position as leaders of national organisations, and as EUD members, means that they are also the individuals best placed to offer insight in to the broader social, political and cultural issues facing their community, which may in turn impact on their relationship with emergency services.

The deaf community currently experiences a variety of barriers in accessing and communicating with emergency services. There is considerable variation in available communication methods between different regions and countries, and those options that are available (e.g. SMS, fax, calls via relay services, pre-registrations, dedicated numbers to memorise) do not provide the fast and reliable access necessary for equality of access and effective emergency response.

For the hearing members in the room, the NEXES Workshop and Exercise were a fascinating experience: to be in a room full of individuals engaged in lively debate in complete silence was an interesting experience! And the reliance on interpreters for coordination and dialogue also gave an insight, however brief and incomplete, into the challenges facing those who experience impediments to communication in their daily lives.

The Exercise itself took the form of a ‘walk through’ of an emergency response scenario involving a terrorist attack on a mass transit system, delivered in sign-language by Lisa Åström of Omnitor, and Mark Wheatley and Frankie Picron of EUD, with designated intervals for facilitated group discussion. This format was decided upon due to the logistics of facilitating participation and discussion with the majority of participants communicating in sign-language, with considerable variation between different national sign languages, and with some of the participants relying on text transcription, aside from sign language and voice interpretation.

Discussion topics focused on the currently available communications options and any associated impediments to communication, as well as the proposed alternatives considered by NEXES, and their advantages and / or limitations. Topics were not overly proscriptive however, and free and creative discussion was encouraged and enthusiastically engaged in!. The exercise scenarios were written from a variety of perspectives (e.g. victim, bystander, concerned citizen) which provided a fruitful means of encouraging participants to think about the topics in the context of the broadest possible range of situations.

Careful consideration was given to the nature of the scenario prior to the exercise, and whether it would be potentially upsetting to participants. The consensus was that it is important for exercises to be as relevant and realistic as possible, but participants were briefed as to the nature of the scenario before the exercise commenced and given the opportunity to withdraw then, or at any point thereafter, if they so wished. As it turned out, the response to the scenario was extremely positive, including from participants who had first-hand experience of the recent attacks in Brussels and who considered such exercises a valuable means of sharing their experiences and the learning they gained from the events they had been involved in.

The overall response to the Exercise was extremely positive too. Despite the exercise running for nearly an hour and a half, several participants said they would have liked it to last longer! Discussion was extremely animated, and all participants engaged thoughtfully and enthusiastically. The feedback gathered was invaluable, and provides a fascinating insight in to the challenges facing the deaf community in their interactions with emergency services, and in to their requirements for the Next Generation of Emergency Services.

The feedback contributed by participants is therefore of great value to the NEXES Action. Among the more specific responses and suggestions were some broader considerations that may not be readily apparent to non-deaf individuals. For example, that fact that deaf people rely on visual communication, regardless of whether they have sign language as their first language, or whether they primarily lip-read. Such considerations are extremely important when considering how to best communicate information to deaf end-users in emergency situations. They also have broader applications, for example in communicating with tourists and early migrants who cannot speak the native language of the country they are in. This highlights the fact that accessibility is not simply a matter of developing solutions targeted at specific end-user groups, but rather necessitates the promotion of universal accessibility by employing technologies and processes which facilitate access for the greatest range of end-users.

Of relevance was also the participant’s emphasis on the accuracy of information sent by emergency services, the ability to verify the provenance of information, and how recent it is. Likewise suggestions about the simplicity of functionality e.g. the utility of a ‘one touch’ system, accessible when a device screen is locked, the value of tutorials on emergency preparedness and first aid, and of clear mapping functions that can highlight areas of danger / safety. All these suggestions are equally applicable to hearing end-users and highlight the fact that, in addition to the specific requirements of deaf end-users, there is also a great deal of commonality in end-user requirements, and the functionality developed on the basis of deaf end-user requirements could also be of benefit to others.

In addition to highlighting areas of commonality between end-users, the feedback further highlighted the diversity of the deaf community, and the need for emergency organisations and their partners to be attentive to the heterogeneous nature of end-user groups. A prime example of this was found in the participants’ views on issues of privacy. Whilst some participants expressed concern at the sharing of personal information with emergency services, some of the younger participants actually suggested the use of microchip implants that could automatically transmit personal data! Similarly, some participants stressed the need for the continued use of fax for elderly citizens, whilst others floated the idea of holograms and telepathy being employed in the future! Such wonderfully outlandish suggestions represent the extreme of the discrepancy between what is currently possible and what may be envisaged (or expected?!) by end-users. Science-fiction aside, they remind us of how far behind contemporary technology much emergency communication is. Some participants also referenced existing technologies such as Google Glasses, and the need for emergency services to be aware of emergent technology which may replace or supplement the current reliance on Smartphones and Tablets, and which will entail its own challenges in terms of accessibility and end-user requirements. They also remind us of the diversity of end-user opinions that NEXES will consider in order to best meet the needs of citizens. Fortunately there is plenty of ground between fax machines and holograms for NEXES to explore!

Participants also highlighted the broader challenges faced by the deaf community in emergency situations, most notably the fact that the challenges are not simply present in the initial contact but persist throughout subsequent interactions with First Responders and other emergency personnel. Most obvious among these is the lack of training among emergency services personnel on how to communicate with deaf people. A more specific challenge highlighted was the fact that in a dark, and / or chaotic environment a deaf casualty may not hear First Responders and may thus be unaware of their presence. In such a situation, it was suggested that an alarm / beacon function as part of the App could be of value. Such considerations highlight the need, emphasised by many of the participants, for a holistic approach to accessibility in emergency response, encompassing education (of both citizens and emergency services personnel), response and bilateral communication and interaction, within which NEXES could play a vital role.

Overall, the NEXES Exercise was a great success, highlighting both the vital importance of end-user expertise in the Action and the commitment of the Consortium partners to the Action’s success. Although we may be far from the futuristic stage envisaged by some participants, the NEXES Research and Innovation Action nevertheless represents an important and innovative effort in advancing the possibilities for a truly universal, democratic and inclusive emergency service, and this first Exercise has certainly validated this effort.

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