Arizona integrates program to communicate with Deaf and the hard-of-hearing community during wildland fire season

Arizona integrates program to communicate with Deaf and the hard-of-hearing community during wildland fire season

  • ASL interpreters provide translation support for various public meetings during wildfire season
ASL interpreters provide translation support for various public meeting during wildfire season.
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Wildland fires that move toward populated areas can be deadly, destructive and frightening for those residing in their paths.

Communication is critical during emergencies. Access to vital safety information is important for communities who may be affected. One such community is the Deaf and hard-of-hearing. Ideally, captioning and/or sign language interpreters are provided by emergency response organizations to reach access and functional needs audiences.

In previous wildland fire seasons, these services were not provided in Arizona.

However, Arizona’s 2017 wildland fire season has demonstrated an inclusive way of providing communication to all members of the community.

Months of collaboration between state and local agencies, and the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing culminated in a pilot program, the Emergency Response Interpreters Credentialing Program (ERIC). Through this program, specially trained American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters and Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) captioners can be requested by local and state agencies for emergency deployment. Through the use of ASL and CART services, agencies can broaden the reach of important information to meet the needs of Deaf and hard-of-hearing.

In Arizona, 1.1 million people are hard of hearing; over 20,000 Arizonans are Deaf and use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary method of communication. In fact, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders shows approximately 15 percent of American adults (37.5 million) report trouble hearing.

“The ability to order ASL and CART providers through the dispatch system has been invaluable in being able to provide timely information to community members directly impacted by a wildfire,” said Michelle Fidler, Public Information Officer for the Southwest Area Incident Management Team 1. “This is especially important when there’s a need to convey information about life and safety issues including evacuations and smoke impacts.”

Interpreters and captioners participate in all critical wildland fire messaging, including community meetings, where hundreds attend presentations by firefighting experts to receive the latest fire information, and have their questions answered.  These sessions are often live-streamed and/or accessible online. ERIC members may provide interpretive support during evacuation efforts as well, such as going door-to-door and assisting at road stops, or staffing Individual Assistance Service Centers and Reception and Care Centers.

“We have received positive feedback for providing these services,” said Fidler.
“It reaffirms the need for the program when we are able to communicate directly via an ASL interpreter or CART provider with community members in the audience.”

These communication services can also be integrated into other disasters and emergencies where the public may be at risk and asked to shelter in place, evacuate or receive other information that will help keep them and their families safe.

Eleven trained ASL Interpreters and three trained CART providers were critical to the successful launch of the ERIC program this year. The ERIC program has deployed resources to ten incidents in the summer of 2017.

Planning for additional resources is already underway. Victoria Bond, Interpreter Outreach and Development Coordinator with the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing says the Commission and partner agencies will host additional training this fall to ensure they are able to meet the increasing demand for services.  

Partner agencies include Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, and Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management, along with the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing and American Red Cross (Arizona/New Mexico/El Paso).