Recent news stories chronicle efforts by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to implement a nationwide emergency alert system that notifies users of an emergency via text messages to cell phones and other electronic devices. The FCC and others are to be applauded for putting forward such a system. It certainly complements the work of the post-Katrina Report that came out in June 2006, but part of me feels that the train has already left the station on this issue.

Regardless of where you live in this country, you can sign up for breaking news, weather or emergency alerts from local and national media outlets, websites and even local and regional emergency management authorities. Most of the time, the news media puts out these type of alerts far in advance of anything that is issued by any governmental authority. It’s more than appropriate that the FCC is pushing such a nationwide emergency notification system but where services and capabilities are already being provided (predominantly by the private sector), shouldn’t we be focusing on the critical gaps that remain in emergency notification?

Imagine being in a hurricane prone State with a Category 3 or 4 storm coming inland and its projected course changes dramatically and its now spawning tornadoes in the area near you. While others in the community receive bulletins warning of the incoming threat, you never receive any type of understandable warning to evacuate from the danger facing you and your family.

This is the harsh reality facing many deaf and hard of hearing individuals living in the US today.

According to US Census figures, just over 10% of the US population is either deaf or hard of hearing. Despite the tremendous amounts of technology and resources we have today focusing on emergency management, a significant portion of the country fails to receive emergency alerts.

Every day we (in the hearing world) are bombarded by media and gadgets that deliver non-stop information ranging from the important (breaking news, weather, etc.) to the ridiculous (constant Britney updates). To a degree, we are able to regulate what information we get and how we receive it.

Yet for the majority of people who are deaf or hard of hearing who rely on American Sign Language (ASL) as their principal means of communications, this capability does not exist.

Text messaging and closed captioning are options that can be used to relay important information to people who are hard of hearing and whose primary language is English. However, large segments of deaf only use ASL — which has no roots in English. Consequently the scrolling text used in such alerts are often undecipherable. As such, when authorities or the media issue an urgent warning about an unfolding emergency (weather, emergency alert) via a text message/closed captioning, one of our most vulnerable communities is not getting the message because they are unable to comprehend these potentially life-saving messages.

Our ignorance as a nation to this situation is shameful. I am not deaf, nor are any members of my family. I cannot begin to appreciate the challenges associated with living in a world where silence reigns and my communications abilities are limited to those who can ‘sign’ to me to share information.

Americans were rightfully outraged to learn how people, particularly the most vulnerable (poor, elderly, disabled), were ‘left behind’ when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Regardless of excuse, the anger and global humiliation of that event caused us all to ask difficult questions about our readiness and emergency preparedness.

The answers to a number of those questions were not comforting, but they did spur dramatic improvements within FEMA, the FCC and others governmental organizations and prompted the investment of additional and overdue resources in our nation’s emergency management structures.

Despite these improvements, there remains a tremendous lack of engagement when it comes to reaching out to citizens who are truly vulnerable.

Some states and communities have shown tremendous leadership by reaching out to the hearing impaired during emergencies, but only Texas provides any type of comprehensive statewide emergency warning system to reach the deaf by broadcasting warning messages in ASL.

As part of Florida’s regular emergency briefings by the Governor and other personnel during televised news conferences (especially during hurricane season), an ASL interpreter is provided to ‘sign’ the warnings that are being issued. Other states, cities and communities provide similar interpreters, but more need to take steps to change the status quo.

FEMA and others have shown some initiative with its Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Program, yet tremendous gaps still exist despite the national rhetoric promising not to leave anyone behind ‘next time.’ We’ve made big strides since the Hurricanes of 2005 but as we enter Hurricane Season 2008, we’ve adopted a Vegas attitude betting that everything will turn out OK when it comes to emergency alerts. That’s a gamble I wouldn’t take.

There are more than enough parties to blame for the current circumstance (FEMA, FCC, state and local governments, broadcasters/media, etc). All are equally culpable and should be held accountable but these are also the same entities that can correct the problem – a process that needs to start now.

There are existing technologies and programs that can provide solutions to this problem. Unfortunately we in the hearing world are doing a dreadful job in making sure everyone has access to the emergency messages when they need it most. Focused attention, a sense of urgency, dedicated and sufficient resources and firm commitments to make the communications connections happen for this vulnerable constituency and others is what seems to be in shortest supply.

As Americans, we believe that every person, regardless of their class or condition has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When a person lacks the ability to defend themselves or prepare for an emergency, ‘We the people’ have an American and most certainly ‘human’ responsibility to step forward and assist.

Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten that nearly 10% of the population that is part of ‘We the people’ has the same right to know what is happening so as to protect and preserve what they hold dear. None of us in the hearing world would accept lack of emergency awareness or information when it came to protecting and preserving our families and property. Why should someone who is deaf or hard of hearing be any different?

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More