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Emergency alerts now available in American Sign Language

Tuesday, October 26, 2021 by Andrew Logan

For the first time, community members who are deaf, hard of hearing or blind will be able to receive accessible emergency notifications. The city of Austin and Travis County launched the Accessible Hazard Alert System, or AHAS, on Oct. 4.

The new program allows users to receive emergency notifications in the form of a video with American Sign Language. The alerts are accompanied by a voiceover of the message and English text that can be used by a Braille reader or other screen-reading devices.

“We understand that when there’s a disaster, it’s scary. There can be misinformation. There can be a lack of information. It can be hard to find, and having every tool available to provide information to communities is important,” said Bryce Bencivengo, spokesperson for the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “We have a huge deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind community in Austin because we have the Texas School for the Deaf and the Texas School for the Blind here. We’re being responsive to that community.”

 The Accessible Hazard Alert System was used for the first time on Oct. 13, just nine days after the program’s release. An emergency alert was sent to warn users of severe weather. It was successful, Bencivengo said.

The city and the county partnered with Deaf Link, an all-service ASL interpreting agency based in San Antonio, to launch the initiative. Similar AHAS programs have been launched in San Antonio, Ft. Worth and Oklahoma City, Bencivengo noted. 

“We are grateful to be able to partner with an organization like Deaf Link who share our commitment to community preparedness,” Eric Carter, Travis County’s chief emergency management coordinator, said in a statement to the press. “Preparedness information should be available to everyone.”

A two-year contract with Deaf Link will provide regular maintenance and updates to the system. In case of emergency, Deaf Link employs people 24/7 to prepare videos in American Sign Language. Messages can be created and released within 15-30 minutes from the moment they are notified by the city, Bencivengo said.

In addition to providing custom videos with specific emergency alerts and information on what actions to take, Deaf Link creates pre-scripted messages that can be released almost instantaneously for more generic emergency situations such as severe weather. The alert released Oct. 13 was a pre-scripted message.

“As a longtime deaf citizen of the Austin area I was thrilled to learn about the AHAS in ASL,” said David Coco, a representative for TDI, a national advocacy organization for deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind consumers that advocates for improved telecommunication services. Coco spoke with the Austin Monitor in his personal capacity.

“Enhanced alert systems such as AHAS have only been implemented in a few cities in the U.S. so we are excited to be on the forefront of this implementation,” Coco said in a written statement. 

“We try to find tools that are both innovative and easy to use for the public, so that they can get critical information and be prepared, both before and during a disaster, so they and their family can be safe,” Bencivengo said. 

To sign up for the Accessible Hazard Alert System, visit the website or text “AHAS” to 737-241-3710.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

Photo by B137, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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