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Technology Exists for Disabled to Access 9-1-1, say FCC Panelists

Before new devices are developed, there needs to be a market for them.

While a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) advisory panel focused on increasing access to emergency services by individuals with disabilities said before new devices are developed there needs to be a market for those devices, another member urged augmenting iPads and other wireless devices which are already selling.

by J.J. Smith

The FCC’s Emergency Access Advisory Committee (EAAC) met on June 10, 2011 at the commission’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, and during open discussion, panelist Paul Michaelis of Avaya Labs, said he “would like the folks (the EAAC) to be asking themselves if we were to build a particular device, would anyone buy it?”

Michaelis added he would “love to build everything people ask for, but I would get fired if I advocate the building of something that sits on the shelves.” Michaelis said 30 years ago he helped Texas Instruments design a communications device for the disabled similar to what now being requested. “It’s called a VOCAID, and it just sat on the shelves; it was a tremendous disappointment,” he said.

Michaelis urged the EAAC to “please give some consideration to whether the product is marketable before you ask us (manufacturers) to build it.”

However, EAAC member Rebecca Ladew, of SCAT Inc., provided a written statement saying, “it is difficult to determine what is the best emergency communication for people with speech disabilities to use since there are a variety of speech disabilities.” She added, “One idea is to use augmentative alternative communication devices (AACD) wired to 9-1-1, or include some sort of wireless mechanism so that an AACD user can call 9-1-1.” That concept has been around for a long time, but hasn’t been implemented anywhere, she said. Nonetheless, it is “a hot area of AACD development right now.”

That approach requires some technologies to install WIFI connections to an AACD, beyond the integrated augmentative alternative communication device, or for a data connection to support some sort of speech facilitation device, Ladew said. “It already exists with the iPads, it is also suggested that speech assistance could be some sort of an app, based on dictation assistance, so someone could carry a smartphone that speaks for them,” she said. That “does require a lot of computing power, but should be on a suggestion list,” she added.

“The iPad is not a phone, but it does make a great AACD device,” Ladew said. “The way to turn an iPad into a phone is to use Skype and speed dial. If the iPad is connected to any hot spot, through built in WIFI, the call would go through.”

Laurie Flaherty, a program analyst with the Department of Transportation’s Office of Emergency Medical Services, pointed out the EAAC’s charge includes making recommendations in seven specific areas within a certain time frame. “How does this discussion fit into that wide charge,” she asked and what was the plan for the group to go about meeting its responsibilities for that piece.

EAAC member Joel Ziev, of Partners for Access LLC, said Flaherty’s questions was “an appropriate question,” and one of the things the panel has “to be careful of is to not think equipment and whose going to buy it.”

“9-1-1 is public commodity that people need at every point in their life,” Ziev said. “The fundamental construct of the (EAAC) charter is make 9-1-1 available,” he said. However, Ziev added that despite the high-tech equipment being available, the focus remains on analog equipment, and that has kept the 9-1-1 response centers from making the “jump from the dialing in system,” to high-tech capabilities. There is equipment available that can do that, but “we (9-1-1 centers) just don’t have the thinking yet to take advantage of that equipment,” he said.