Hands conveying "help" in sign language

Calling 911 and speaking to an emergency dispatcher is something most take for granted. The emergency dispatcher asks questions, gathers information, and notifies response. The caller follows over-the-phone pre-arrival instructions, when necessary, and the emergency dispatcher optimally stays on the line until fire, police, or medical responders arrive on the scene.

Although a simplified description, the process is repeated thousands upon thousands of times each day. It’s also a process that people who are deaf and hard of hearing cannot take for granted. Despite laws and regulations to make things equal and accessible, emergency communication, in most cases, is not functionally equivalent to those who can hear.

“Within the Deaf Community, access to 911 is sorely lacking,” said Zainab Alkebsi, policy counsel for the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). Here are three means of communication for the deaf or hard of hearing in an emergency.


TeleTYpe, more commonly known as “TTY,” pairs an electromechanical typewriter with a communication channel that allows people to communicate through typed messages. Invented in 1960, the use of TTY wasn’t mandated in 911 call centers, or public safety answering points (PSAPs), until 1991. Early models were cumbersome, but digital technology now enables computers to talk directly to TTYs through either a landline or cellphone. Though more modern technologies now exist for communication in emergency situations, a TTY still has its place, according to the NAD. “There are certain populations within the deaf community that still rely on TTYs, such as those who are deafblind, senior citizens, or who live in rural areas without internet,” said Alkebsi. When there is a power outage and the internet is down, for example, having a TTY with battery backup power and a landline may be the only way to connect to emergency services.


In 2014, an FCC rule went into effect requiring all wireless carriers and providers of “interconnected” text messaging applications to support the ability of consumers to send text messages to 911 where PSAPs are also prepared to receive the texts. The proposal included a carrier provision to send automated “bounce back” error messages when a text is sent to a 911 center where the service is not available.

The number of PSAPs ready to receive Text-to-911 has grown significantly since 2012, according to the FCC Master PSAP Registry. In 2015, less than three percent of the nation’s 6,000 PSAPs had implemented Text-to-911. Since then, the number of PSAPs using the platform has increased to almost 50 percent.1

Indiana is in the unique position of having 100 percent of its counties using Text-to-911. Primary PSAPS in all 92 Indiana counties have had the ability to receive and send text messages since 2016, and the state now tops the nation with the number of text sessions processed by telecommunicators.

Real-time Text

Real-time text (RTT) is the up-and-coming technology for the deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, and speech impaired. Characters are transmitted immediately once typed and displayed immediately to the receiving party through wireless handsets that use IP-based technology on networks that support RTT.2 The immediacy offers the same conversational directions and interactivity as voice. In 2017, an FCC rule went into effect to facilitate a transition from TTY technology to RTT “as a reliable and interoperable universal text solution over wireless networks for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, or have a speech disability.”3

While these technologies are helpful, their access is still limited for those who truly need them. Alkebsi said, “Imagine being faced with an emergency and unable to contact 911. Deaf or hard of hearing people are unable to easily obtain help when needed simply because the authorities have not prioritized accessibility within 911 services.”

Reprinted with permission from the Journal of Emergency Dispatch. The original article can be found here.

headshot of Audrey Fraizer

AUDREY FRAIZER is managing editor of the Journal of Emergency Dispatch.

Endnotes and Resources

1 “Text to 911 Master PSAP Registry.” Federal Communications Commission. https://www.fcc.gov/files/text-911-master-psap-registryxlsx
2 “Transition From TTY to Real-Time Text Technology.” Federal Communications Commission. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/01/23/2017-01377/transition-from-tty-to-real-time-text-technology
3 “Real-Time Text: Improving Accessibility.” Federal Communications Commission. https://www.fcc.gov/sites/default/files/real-time-text.pdf

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