- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Christina Pullen’s struggle to escape from Hurricane Katrina is helping area officials learn more about evacuating the deaf and hearing impaired during an emergency.

“I only knew to leave because my parents said we need to leave,” said Miss Pullen, who is now a Gallaudet University student living in the D.C. area, which has the highest concentration of deaf and hearing-impaired persons in the U.S.

Miss Pullen, 19, typically relies on text messaging and electronic communication for her news and emergency alerts. But when Katrina’s 160-mph winds knocked out cell phone reception and other communication systems, she had to depend on family and friends.

“If I had been all alone I would’ve been lost,” she said through a sign-language interpreter.

Now, as area officials reevaluate their emergency procedures in the aftermath of Katrina, they are paying special attention to the needs of persons with hearing problems and other disabilities.

“There has been a focus on preparedness in the past,” said Miguel Ascarrunz, the emergency services manager for the Montgomery County Homeland Security Department. “But the disability population is a group with which we need to interact more.”

For example, the Emergency Preparedness and Public Awareness and Education campaign that area jurisdictions started after Katrina gives little attention to the hearing impaired — telling residents to “tune in to local TV or radio stations for instructions from your local government as to how to proceed.”

Lise Hamlin of the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, which helped develop the awareness campaign, said including the needs of the hearing impaired is “going to take some time.”

The resource center has worked with the jurisdictions since September 11, 2001, to make such improvements.

The District, the city of Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Fairfax, Loudoun and Montgomery counties now have text-alert systems that notifies those who have registered for the service.

“We rely heavily on electronic communications and the text alerting to let us know what is going on,” Mrs. Hamlin said. “Without those, we are back to communicating and finding out information through other people.”

Other emergency management agencies in the region and Metro acknowledge the need to improve emergency services for the hearing impaired, but say they are making plans for more text-based alerts.

Lisa Fabstein, a spokeswoman for Metro, said the video monitors for advertisements being considered for trains could be a good way to provide real-time information during an emergency.

“But right now if people need to evacuate, realistically, deaf passengers would just follow others out,” she said.

Officials in the District, Montgomery County and other area jurisdictions said they are working with the National Association for the Deaf to develop more effective alert systems to help the hearing impaired.

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