Nuclear alert sirens fall short for the deaf and hard of hearing

July 13th, 2010 by CHHS RAs

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By Gregory Sunshine
CHHS Research Assistant, summer 2010

In the event of a radiological emergency, people who live within a 10-mile radius of nuclear power plants will hear a system of sirens sound the alert.  However, for their deaf and hard of hearing neighbors, the sound of the sirens alone provides no warning whatsoever.

According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“NRC”) regulations, each nuclear power plant must have an emergency notifications system for its surrounding 10-mile “emergency planning zone.” The purpose of the sirens is to let residents know that some type of emergency has occurred, and to tune to their television or radio for specific Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) instructions (the same EAS that interrupts late night television for a weekly test).  Although the Americans with Disabilities Act requires television EAS messages to include closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing, without an alternative to the sirens, residents who cannot hear the sirens will not know to check their television in the first place. This creates a significant notification problem for radiological emergencies when getting quick emergency information could save lives.

Although sirens provide no notice to the almost 1,000,000 Americans who are functionally deaf, the NRC inspection manual indicates that sirens are an acceptable means of notifying the populace.  In fact, NRC Inspection Procedure 71114.02 – which provides the guidelines for inspecting plants’ alert and notification system – indicates that sirens are the primary means of notification.  According to the manual, if a plant’s siren system is adequate, the plant is considered to have met the “notice to the populace” requirement, regardless of how many deaf or hard of hearing residents would receive no such notice.

But there are steps deaf and hard of hearing citizens can take to overcome the gap in radiological emergency notification systems.

First, deaf and hard of hearing residents should call their sheriff’s office to ensure that the computer aided dispatch system has them listed as residents with difficulty hearing.  Doing so may allow the residents to receive notice from the sheriff’s office if it implements route alerting (where officers drive a specific route disseminating information via loudspeaker), and would also ensure that a telecommunications device for the deaf (known as a TDD or a TTY) is used for phone conversations.

Residents should also determine whether their county, or a neighboring county, uses some type of text alert system to notify residents via text message of possible local emergencies (most often weather-related). If the county does not have a text alert system, residents should purchase a special needs weather radio. Conveniently, both the text alert and weather radios are also tied to the EAS. Therefore, if the EAS begins to notify residents of a radiological emergency at a nearby nuclear power plant, it is likely that a text alert system would be used to notify those who have enrolled in the service.  If EAS is activated, the weather radios will provide notice to residents through means viable to the deaf or hard of hearing, such as “visual and vibrating alarms and simple text readouts.”

People with difficulty hearing should also determine if their county has a reverse 911 system in place, and if so, enroll in it.  Reverse 911 acts as an automated calling service that calls residents entered into its database and plays a prerecorded message with emergency instructions.  If such a system calls a deaf or hard of hearing resident, that resident’s TDD would translate the message into text.

Finally, FEMA advises people who are deaf or hard of hearing to “plan ahead for someone to convey essential emergency information to you if you are unable to use the TV or radio.”  While this and the aforementioned efforts may not provide the same immediate notice as the sirens, they are better than no notice at all.

Although deaf and hard of hearing residents can take steps to mitigate this notification gap, the difficult reality remains that this group of citizens faces an ongoing safety disadvantage until the system is modified.

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