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Back to Archives | Back to July 2009 Contents 

Providing Police Services to the Deaf

By Kathy Forrest, Project Manager II, Frederick County Department of Emergency Preparedness; Gene Mellin, Director, Frederick County Fire and Rescue; and Kim C. Dine, Chief of Police, Frederick, Maryland

Photo courtesy of Frederick County
Department of Emergency Preparedness

ne of the unique challenges facing emergency officials across the United States is the need to educate and provide public services to a growing deaf population. The city of Frederick, Maryland, is the home of the Maryland School for the Deaf (MSD), a thriving public school offering complete academic and extracurricular programs for approximately 500 children between the ages of 4 and 21, some of whom reside at the school. Known nationally for its history, including its historic downtown, Frederick is a growing and thriving city of over 60,000 residents and is Maryland’s second largest city, after Baltimore.

Frederick’s responders provide service to the MSD school campus, which is located in the heart of an active retail, commercial, and residential district that requires deaf students and staff to cross busy roadways as they move about their daily school activities. Through the residential placement component, the campus also provides educational and student activities 24 hours a day. MSD staff members, both hearing and deaf, offer multiple extracurricular activities and supporting programs for additional deaf and hard-of-hearing community members, such as babies who were born deaf and their families. First responders may be faced with issues related to any or all of these components if an emergency occurs on or near the school campus.

Recognizing these challenges, public safety officials in Frederick teamed with MSD to create a unique partnership to serve the deaf community better and enhance public safety. Specifically, public safety officials wanted to improve the cooperation and communication among all agencies, enhance every agency’s response in any type of public safety incident, and engage in specific efforts to educate all agencies. The Frederick Police Department (FPD), Frederick County Department of Emergency Preparedness, Frederick County Fire and Rescue, and officials serving MSD assessed the population served, including the cultural awareness and competency of first responders; engaged in community policing by bringing stakeholders to the table; engaged in crime prevention through environmental design; provided training; and created a unique internship to address proactively both real and potential operational communication gaps between the deaf community and first responders. A key component of this multifaceted approach was the creation of a unique internship between the FPD and MSD.

Forging a Partnership

To bridge the communication gap between first responders and the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, a partnership was formed with MSD. The initiative began as a daylong event in which a team of public safety officials presented information to the MSD Health and Safety Council and participated in a pilot awareness program, led by MSD staff and students.

To increase cultural awareness and competency of first responders, career and volunteer, who will arrive during an emergency, MSD staff and students shared information with public safety decision makers on the social, historical, educational, and cultural aspects of deafness as well as deaf etiquette, and they provided a tour of the MSD campus. A course titled “American Sign Language Brief for Public Safety Officials” was then taught by two MSD students, and the event was concluded with a discussion of future collaborative efforts.

The initiative prompted tangible and several unexpected results. Not only did the awareness session result in a greater appreciation of deaf culture, improved communication capabilities, and a sustainable partnership with MSD, but it also sparked multiple educational and collaborative efforts. Officials in attendance left with a renewed interest in assisting Frederick’s most vulnerable students.

Environmental Design/Crime Prevention

Following the initial meeting, staff began exploring countdown timers on street lights at the intersections surrounding the school campus; tours of fire and rescue stations were coordinated; school emergency operations plan guidance was provided; and MSD campus maps were revised and distributed to first responder agencies. The local business and employment center is considering the value of American Sign Language (ASL) awareness sessions for its clients, and the MSD community relations specialist has partnered with local public information officers to enhance the ability to communicate pre-emergency information to the school and those it serves. Agencies provided guidance on new MSD construction to account for efficient emergency dispatch; public safety tips and ambulance billing information were shared through a previously established e-mail network at MSD; and a team began advocating for an efficient and effective means to transmit 9-1-1 text messages for wireless carriers.

Classroom Training Sessions

Two additional partnerships have been developed to offer classroom training. A one-day session titled “Emergency Responders and the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Community: Taking the First Steps to Disaster Recovery” will be delivered by the Eastern Kentucky University Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium, the Community Emergency Preparedness Information Network, MSD, and preparedness partners. As a result of the work of a student attending the Maryland Institute of Fire and Rescue’s Instructor II class, a refresher ASL course is being discussed by MSD, Frederick Community College, and the Department of Emergency Preparedness.

MSD Internship

Although environmental assessments and the joint briefing and introductory information were essential, it was determined that a truly proactive effort could best be accomplished by the creation of a unique partnership between MSD and the FPD. The FPD created an internship for one MSD student to enhance the level of response to those in the deaf community. Although efforts to improve service to this segment of the population have been made before in the first-responder community, it was felt that this special partnership between MSD and the local police department would not only result in better communication but would also forge enhanced trust and communication with the deaf community. As a result of this internship, the student has been working closely with the FPD’s Training Division and other public safety officials to develop a portable communication tool. When encountering non–English-speaking individuals in an emergency situation, first responders will use the tool, which includes a language chart and pictographs of common public safety terms, to aid in communication. As public safety responders know, interpreters are infrequently on the scene or immediately available in the first stages of emergency situations or arrests. Many police officers and emergency medical technicians carry various types of commercially available visual aides and laminated cards. The MSD intern assessed these communication tools and then interviewed local emergency services personnel for their recommendations on how these might be improved. The goal is to draft a pocket communicator with a tabbed flip chart that is narrowly focused on key information needed in the first stages of an event or emergency. It is hoped that this tool, once completed, can be reproduced for use by other public safety workers.

Scenario Training Exercises

Figure 1. MSD student intern Bobby
Harris participates in a role
play exercise with recruit
academy emergency medical
Photo courtesy
of Frederick County Department
of Emergency Preparedness

In addition to the collaborative communication tool project, the intern engaged in scenario-based training with police and fire and rescue first responders (figure 1). Responders encountering the intern during the role play exercises were unaware that he was deaf and that they would need to use an alternate means of communication. This interaction provided a very realistic simulation of a call for service that local responders may face in the Frederick area.

Through the role play exercise, the intern portrayed an irate student who needed to be restrained. When restraining a deaf person, officers are faced with the inability to communicate verbally, which presents many obstacles to effective service delivery. For example, when the intern’s arms were restrained behind his back, he lost his ability to communicate and subsequently experienced a high level of anxiety. As a result of the lessons learned by participating responders, trainers are facilitating refresher training segments on officer safety and restraint tactics, particularly when confronted with a deaf person.

Fire and rescue academy students shared a similar experience. During a scenario-based exercise, emergency medical services (EMS) responders faced an injured deaf citizen, and firefighters faced an agitated citizen outside a burning home. Although fire and rescue first responders frequently face unresponsive and uncommunicative patients, facing one who was aggressively but unsuccessfully attempting to communicate with them was unsettling. This was particularly obvious when personnel were confronted during fire scenarios and ignored the attempt of the deaf student to communicate to them that victims were trapped inside. The need to provide additional training and to increase the awareness of all fire and EMS personnel about the deaf population in Frederick became obvious through the training exercises conducted at the academy. This experience prompted fire and rescue academy decision makers to explore additional or refresher communications components in their curricula.

Improved Service and Tangible Results

The partnership between MSD and local first responders is an example of exemplary teamwork, in which public safety partners and community members unite to identify a challenge, develop a solution, and apply joint resources to improve the timeliness and quality of service delivery to community residents. By involving those who had a vested interest in resolving problems in service delivery, Frederick’s public safety officials successfully forged a cohesive, effective interagency and community partnership with the residents they serve.

Preparing the most vulnerable for emergency or disaster is of utmost importance in Frederick County. To best deliver public safety services, particularly to an ever-changing population, emergency officials created a network of sustainable preparedness partners representing governmental and nongovernmental entities. Partners united to promote safe behaviors through training, public education, and promotional and community events. Through these efforts, they strive to reduce the likelihood and severity of such undesired events as fires, traffic collisions, and other related emergencies and to enhance the community’s ability to recover quickly should a disaster occur. Frederick’s community partners embraced the value of allied agencies, particularly the knowledge- and resource-sharing aspects; as a result, partnerships continue to flourish. ■

About MSD

All students have a right to learn and to grow in an academically challenging and nurturing environment. The language-enriched environment at the Maryland School for the Deaf is a catalyst for developing academic and social skills as students are immersed in educational, developmental, and extracurricular activities.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students thrive in an accessible world where staff members provide not only instruction but meaningful interaction. The goal is for students to receive top-quality education while having opportunities to participate fully in drama, sports, and other activities, such as the National Honor Society, the Junior National Association of the Deaf, and the Academic Bowl.

Some quick facts:

  • MSD provides free public education for children from birth through age 21 who are deaf or hard of hearing, who reside in Maryland, and who meet the MSD admissions criteria.
  • All MSD programs are fully accredited by the Middle States Assocation of Colleges and Schools.

  • For students with additional needs, MSD provides specialized resources with the goal of positive academic, social, and emotional growth.

  • MSD has campuses in Frederick (preschool through 12th grade) and Columbia (preschool through 8th grade). There are residential facilities on both campuses, although the Columbia Campus population is primarily day students.

  • Bus transportation is provided throughout the state, stopping in the home area of each child. Residential students go home on Fridays and return to the campus on Sundays.

  • MSD is governed by a 19-member Board of Trustees appointed by the governor and approved by the Maryland Senate. The school is supported primarily by state funds.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 8, July 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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