Communicating with Everyone During a Crisis

Angi English
Jan 25, 2015 · 8 min read

Communicating important life saving information to the public during a crisis, natural or manmade is paramount first responders and government officials. Ensuring that everyone is getting the same life-saving information is vital, including citizens with disabilities, especially those who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired. The Census of 2010 estimates that there are 56.7 million people with disabilities in the United States, which represents 18.7% of the current population. Approximately 8 million have vision difficulty and 8 million have hearing difficulty. The number of individuals with these types of disabilities is expected to increase as the population ages. In 2012, the Census estimates that 50% of adults 65 and older have some type of disability.

In the event of an active disaster, understanding what effective communication is and how it can be provided to citizens is vital for all levels of government, particularly for State Homeland Security and Emergency Management Directors. In an active disaster, effective communication can save lives if presented and formatted in ways that people who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired can utilize.

When a natural or manmade disaster occurs, people tune into television, the Internet and their mobile smart devices to get valuable emergency information. People with disabilities do the same. Information is provided to the public in various ways including live press conferences and television reports by broadcasters and cable operators, with many people watching on mobile digital smart devices. Accessible features and practices that are built into these communication avenues are vital to efficient and effective communication. Ensuring that a sign language interpreter is providing communication during live press conferences to people watching television, via the Internet or on mobile devices is vital. By adding captions, subtitles and audio descriptions to Web-based media, cable operators, broadcasters, and mobile communication providers can give full access to millions of people with hearing or visual disabilities, as well as to non-English speakers during disasters. Captioning, both open and closed can support the growing number of audible Web features, while audio descriptions provide access for people who are blind or visually impaired by adding descriptive narration about the on-screen visuals—including graphics and text. Descriptions also can assist people with learning disabilities by reinforcing through audio what the user is watching on the screen.

I’ll attempt to describe what the requirements are for Live Press Conference and for television and cable operators.

Live Press Conferences

Are State and Local Governments required to provide Effective Communication during disasters?

Under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) all state and local governments are required to take steps to ensure that their communications with people with disabilities are as effective as communications with others. This requirement is referred to as “effective communication” and it is required except where a state or local government can show that providing effective communication would fundamentally alter the nature of the service or program in question or would result in an undue financial and administrative burden.

What does it mean for communication to be “effective”?

Simply put, “effective communication” means that people with disabilities must be given information comparable in content and detail to that given to the general public, as well as in a format that is accessible, understandable, and timely.

How do I provide effective communication in a Live Press Conference in an active disaster?

During an active disaster accessible and effective emergency communication with the public is strategically important. There are three avenues for effective communication in a Live Press Conference in an active disaster — sign language interpreters, real-time captioning and audio description.

In the video above MariDon Sorum talks about how important sign language was during Minot, North Dakota flooding. (Link to transcript:


State and local governments are required under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applicable to State and Local governments to provide equal and effective communication to everyone. The best way to do this for the deaf is to provide American Sign Language (ASL) by a competent sign language interpreter at the press conference. Because many people who are deaf will be watching the press conference on television or a live stream on the Internet, keeping the sign language interpreter in the camera frame provides the citizen who is deaf from birth the same communication as a hearing citizen in real-time. For people who are late-deafened and do not use ASL, the captioning provides equal access. Both are needed for full coverage.

Here’s a good demonstration of keeping the sign language interpreter in the camera frame. Cable Operators and Television Station for live press conferences should also be captioning in real time what is being said. The Federal Communications Commission enforces these requirements (although they are not very good at enforcement, Angi’s 0.02 cents).

Mayor Bloomberg during Hurricane Sandy

The requirements for state and local governments under the ADA and requirements under the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for cable operators and broadcasters can complement each other. Standards under the FCC require captioning for those who are hard of hearing or who do not use ASL. During a live press conference, speakers should keep in mind that any maps, charts graphs, lists, or visual images used should also be verbally described for citizens who are blind or visually impaired. This is called audio description.

Audio Description: Audible Description of Graphics for Citizens who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Audio description is simply describing a visual image for people who cannot see. It is used in the movie industry largely to describe scenes or action in a scene that is not voiced. Providing audio description of images, charts or graphs in an active disaster can save lives. During a live press conference when information is presented in a visual manner, describe the information for listeners who are blind or have low vision. For example, instead of saying, “all the counties in red should evacuate”, say “all the counties in red should evacuate; those counties are Travis, Williamson, Bell and McLennan.” A list of shelter locations displayed should also be verbally communicated. Audio description should be included for all graphics, charts, or maps displaying important emergency information. If a PowerPoint slide is used with images, describe the image on the slide. For example, instead of saying, “as you can see from this image, this is a big hurricane covering substantial landmass,” instead say, “I’m showing an aerial image of Hurricane Katrina over Texas and Louisiana with the landfall point at the City of New Orleans.” Additionally, audio description also can assist people with learning or intellectual disabilities by reinforcing through audio what the user is watching on the screen. What does Audio Description sound like in the movie industry? The following video clip from “Frozen” demonstrates audio description….voicing what is happening in the film that isn’t being spoken but important to understanding the visuals. Try it with your eyes closed.

Television Broadcasters and Cable Operators

Television is the top media used by people with access and functional needs, such as people who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired to receive and verify public alerts.

What are the requirements for broadcasters and cable operators during disaster?

Federal Communications Commission accessible television rules require broadcasters and cable operators to make local emergency information accessible to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, and to persons who are blind or have visual disabilities. This means that emergency information must be provided in an audible and visual format.

What Qualifies as Emergency Information?

Emergency information is information that is intended to further the protection of life, health, safety or property. Examples include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Immediate weather situations: tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, icing conditions, heavy snows, widespread fires, warnings and watches of impending weather changes
  • Community situations: discharge of toxic gases, widespread power failures, industrial explosions, civil disorders, school closings and changes in school bus schedules resulting from such conditions.

How Does Emergency Information Need to Be Made Accessible for TV?

For Persons who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing

In the case of persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, emergency information that is provided in the audio portion of programming must be provided either using closed captioning or other methods of visual presentation, such as open captioning, crawls or scrolls that appear on the screen. Emergency information provided by means other than closed captioning should not block any closed captioning, and closed captioning should not block any emergency information provided by means other than closed captioning.

What is Captioning?

Closed captions are visual text displays that are hidden in the video signal. You can access closed captions through your remote control or on-screen menu. All TVs with a 13-inch or larger diameter screen manufactured after 1993 have caption decoder circuitry. Open captions are an integral part of the television picture, like subtitles in a movie. In other words, open captions cannot be turned off. Text that advances very slowly across the bottom of the screen is referred to as a crawl; displayed text or graphics that move up and down the screen are said to scroll.

For Persons who are Blind or Visually Impaired

On April 8, 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted rules to make televised emergency information more accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. The new rules require emergency information that appears visually during a non-news program (such as when information about the emergency appears visually on the bottom of the screen during a regularly scheduled program) to be provided audibly on a secondary audio stream. The rules will take effect two years after publication in the Federal Register. However, The Weather Channel has an additional 6 months to comply, and The Weather Channel on DIRECTV has an additional 1 year to comply.

What Information about the Emergency Must Be Provided?

The information provided visually and aurally must include critical details regarding the emergency and how to respond. Critical details could include, among other things:

  • Specific details regarding the areas that will be affected by the emergency;
  • Evacuation orders, detailed descriptions of areas to be evacuated and specific evacuation routes, road closures; and
  • Approved shelters or the way to take shelter in one’s home, instructions on how to secure personal property, and how to obtain relief assistance.

In conclusion, all of these details should be discussed with your local community and providers prior to a crisis occurring in your community. Ideally, testing these features during drills is important too. Ensuring effective communication is not only a smart practice but when everyone gets the same information, community is built and lives are saved.

Angi English writes on issues related to emergency management and homeland security issues. She has a Master’s of Arts in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Security and Defense. Angi is a licensed drone pilot, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). She lives in Austin, Texas.

Homeland Security

A Platform by the Center for Homeland Defense and Security For Radical Homeland Security Experimentation. Editorial guidelines (Publication does not equal endorsement):

    Angi English

    Written by

    Chief of Staff, New Mexico Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, Part 107 Drone Pilot. MA National Security Studies, MS Ed. Psychology

    Homeland Security

    A Platform by the Center for Homeland Defense and Security For Radical Homeland Security Experimentation. Editorial guidelines (Publication does not equal endorsement):

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