Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies Georgia Institute of Technology

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The EAS (WEC method) was developed specifically for people with sensory disabilities, therefore it included TTS capability, the ability to override phone settings to present the alert (i.e., silent phone setting)/interrupt current activity on the phone (i.e, searching through contacts, viewing e-mail, etc.), ASL video alerts and the inclusion of URLs within the message. The CMAS final rules, however, do not require the use of TTS software within the message, will use text only, prohibits the use of URLs and the preemption of phone activity in order to deliver the alert as a priority.

Was this an improvement over how you currently receive emergency alerts?

EAS Method

Vision Limitation (EAS)

Hearing Limitation (EAS)

CMAS Method

Vision Limitation (CMAS)

Hearing Limitation (CMAS)















Not Answered







Table 1. Comparison of EAS vs. CMAS Methods

Generally speaking, the EAS method trials received higher rates of approval among all users. Discussions revealed that this was due to more detailed information being provided in the alerts, versus the very limited information allowed by the 90 character restriction of CMAS and exclusion of URLs. Results from field trials have shown that users with sensory disabilities prefer to have access to a second tier of more detailed emergency information that is accessed by way of the same device that provided the alert message, which in the prototype system, was furnished through a URL. When comparing the open discussion remarks between the CMAS field trials and the WEC field trials, it became apparent that the exclusion of this feature reduced satisfaction with the service.

Though quality of the text-to-speech software was cited as needing significant improvement, the inclusion of embedded TTS was appreciated. Not providing TTS functionality will bar access to the content of CMAS alerts by end-users who cannot afford the software and/or who do not feel they need the software because they only use their phone for voice calls. As shown in the CMAS Findings section a number of visually impaired users who own cell phones do not have TTS software.

Those with hearing limitations were the least satisfied with both methods. The low satisfaction with this population appears to be due in part to accessibility features of the mobile devices they were given as not being sufficient in addressing their particular accessibility needs. Some stated that the vibration was not strong enough to capture their attention unless they were holding the phone; however vibration strength varies among mobile phone models. For example, the BlackBerry devices used in the evaluation produced a stronger vibrating cadence than the Cingular 2125/3125 Smartphones. The prevailing theme from this group centered on message features (font size), and handset features (vibration strength, lack of familiarity with handset). Fortunately, customizing how text is presented on handsets is available in some phone models, and the vibration strength depends upon the size of the motor. These issues can be addressed at retail outlets by selecting a handset that includes customization tools and a strong vibration signal.

Focus Groups - ASL Video Alerts

American Sign Language (ASL) is the fourth most common language used in America. It has all the essential features a language requires to operate: rules for grammar, punctuation, and sentence order (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2000). According to participants in earlier field trials, in addition to captions or text, it is preferable to accommodate deaf individuals who utilize ASL as their primary language with ASL interpretation of written or spoken English.  As discussed earlier, the FCC issued a new rule requiring that text-based emergency alerts be sent to mobile phones from all cell phone towers in areas affected by such emergencies. This new rule, raises the question: Do video alerts in ASL enhance understanding of public emergency alerts – above and beyond the text alerts – by people who are deaf?

Two focus groups were convened to explore this question. Participants included people who are deaf and who are conversant in ASL (13 total in 2 groups). 10 of the 13 participants were born deaf; two childhood onset; and, one late deafened. All were very comfortable conversing in ASL, 11 were very comfortable reading English, and two indicated they were somewhat comfortable reading English.

Three types of alerts were evaluated: text message (SMS) only, text message plus video alert in ASL (recorded as a complete message), and text message plus video alert in ASL (assembled from short video clips).

All agreed that the concept of ASL video alerts represented a useful tool for people who are deaf and all were pleased and delighted to see the ASL video on their cell phones. Two participants shared personal experiences of being unaware of national events or local emergencies until days or weeks later because of the limited availability of information in ASL. Finally, some participants noted that using the text and the ASL video together gave them fuller understanding of the message.

Discussion. Given the selection of the focus group participants, it is important to note that the education level of the participants may impact the need for ASL alerts. Most of the participants (9 of 13) had college degrees, and a few were school teachers at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf (AASD). The strong command of written English shared by most of the participants (11 of 13) allowed them to understand the text alert. Nevertheless, all agreed that many who are deaf have little understanding of English and therefore have a strong need for tools like ASL video alerts for public emergencies. Following are improvements and considerations recommended by the participants:

There was some debate over the quality and intelligibility of the segmented video.

  • Most preferred the continuous video – both for intelligibility and general enjoy-ability.

  • There was general acceptance of the segmented video if it decreased costs or time to send alert.

  • Most agreed that intelligibility was hampered by the way the segments were cut (where the segment breaks occurred). Example: “…in effect until 3:00 pm” was cut between “3:00” and “pm.” The break was found to be disconcerting.

  • All hours of the day should be recorded as completed segments (e.g., “3:00 am” and “3:00 pm).

  • Be careful where other breaks in phrasing are placed.

Some participants emphasized the fact that some phrases and expressions do not translate well into Deaf English, or are otherwise not easily understood by people who are deaf. Idiomatic expressions that have entered mainstream English such as “low lying areas” and “take cover” may cause confusion.


Disability stakeholder input in the regulatory process has lead to increased recognition that the needs of people with disabilities be considered proactively in the development of emergency communications policies to preclude the need for costly retrofitting of devices and lengthy revisions to policy. The modernization of EAS is still in the revision phase. However, CMAS will be commercially available in 2012. Work still remains to make CMAS a fully accessible solution for users with sensory limitations. Potentially, the second generation of the system can employ the use of video, audio, graphics, embedded TTS functionality and URLs to provide a more robust alerting experience that is applicable to the variety of needs experienced by people with differing levels of sensory impairment (i.e., late deafened, compared to pre-lingual onset of deafness, low vision compared to the fully blind).

On the industry side, the WEC team recommends that manufacturers who incorporate emergency alerting into mobile wireless handsets examine features such as attention signal volume and vibration strength and consider making these features customizable in order to accommodate various end-user preferences. We also recommend that people with disabilities be included in the early stages of development and field testing of mainstream and assistive products, features and software. Retailers can also benefit from these findings as other work with hearing aid compatible cell phones show that user and salesperson education is a critical factor in ensuring persons with disabilities purchase the correct products for their needs; industry is urged to make sure clear labeling explaining emergency features is on product packaging and in stores, and that sales staff understand the emergency and accessibility features in products.

“Emergency managers have learned and stated that accurate and timely information is as crucial as is rapid and coherent coordination among responding organizations. Effective information systems that provide timely access to comprehensive, relevant, and reliable information are critical.1” WEC recommends the emergency management community create and document best practices to reach individuals with disabilities during emergency crisis situations. Insuring that CMAS and EAS alerts are disseminated simultaneously with complementary emergency information is essential, as WEC findings revealed that people will seek additional emergency information. To avoid confusion, response time loss, bolster and/or maintain trust in the systems, it is important that the two national alerting systems are in synch in both timing and content. Emergency managers that understand the use of inclusive and accessible technological solutions, as well as the instinctual behavior of the public once the alert is received can decrease response times to these populations, which can lead to more efficient use of public safety and emergency management personnel.

Evaluations by the WEC team suggest that mobile devices offer an opportunity to improve dissemination of emergency alerts to sensory impaired populations. Testing of various prototypical solutions to make these alerts more accessible show that simple accommodations can be made that greatly increase the accessibility of these alerts. They also reveal the complex relationship between stakeholder interests. As government and industry move forward in rolling out next-generation alerting systems, the needs of citizens with disabilities must be taken into account in the design and evaluation of such systems and the policy framework the systems will operate within, paying close attention to not only, national policy, but State and local emergency communications plans.

Future Research, Policy and Practice Recommendations

The WEC goal was to identify features that would enhance the accessibility of emergency alerts to mobile devices; and in so doing, uncovered areas for future research, some of which have policy and practice implications. They have been discussed in earlier sections of this report. Below is a synopsis of future research and policy recommendations:

Research Recommendations

  1. The hearing impaired participants that were profoundly Deaf, or that used hearing aids or cochlear implants, stressed the need to receive alerts while asleep. Future research should develop and test with end-users interfacing a lamp, bed shaker, or wearable/portable device, with emergency alerts to mobile devices.

  2. The CMAS will be commercially available in 2012. WEC recommends conducting a study, testing actual CMAS alerts and surveying a larger sample of people with sensory disabilities to determine if the alerts are reaching this population and prompting protective actions.

Policy and Practice Recommendations:

  1. Findings from the CMAS pre-field trial questionnaire revealed that 41% of blind or low vision participants did not purchase TTS software for their personal devices. The CMAS final rules do not require TTS capability. In order to ensure that all cell phone users, regardless of sensory limitation receive the alert and are capable of accessing the content within the message, TTS would need to be (1) part of the message, or (2) CMAS capable handsets would need to be required to have TTS pre-loaded. To provide “functional equivalency” to a national alerting system, the rules would need to eliminate the added expense that a visually impaired user would incur to receive CMAS alerts by providing solution one or two noted above.

  2. Some field trial participants found the CMAS message too general and wanted more detailed information. Providing more information or a reference to more information within the message is currently prohibited. Due to the negative impact on first responder resources and public safety in general, it is recommended that the FCC initiate a Notice of Inquiry to determine the technically viable method for including URLs without over taxing the network.

  3. WEC recommends the emergency management community create and document best practices to reach individuals with disabilities during emergency crisis situations. Emergency managers that understand the use of inclusive and accessible technological solutions can decrease response times to these populations, which can lead to more efficient use of public safety and emergency management personnel.

  4. Findings from the ASL focus groups revealed that translation of idiomatic expressions often used to convey protective measures, such as “take cover” and “avoid low-lying areas” may cause confusion. WEC recommends that the NWS review and revise their alert nomenclature to exclude idiomatic expressions. A preliminary inquiry of the NWS reveals that a standard nomenclature for alerting does not exist, as much of the language used includes regional expressions. Likewise, this holds true for ASL, which further complicates creating a standard. This too represents an area where further investigation is needed.

  5. With regard to message length/content, CMAS field trial findings indicate that the human preference for more detailed information is discordant to industry preference and technical requisite to limit character length, suggesting a need for technological inquiry and policy interventions.

  6. The hearing impaired group found the vibration strength least satisfactory. Although factors such as the small motor in the Cingular 2125/3125 phones used in the test could have negatively impacted perception of the strength of the vibration cadence. Visually impaired users, who did not have any hearing loss, could rely on both the sound attention signal and the vibrating cadence to notify them of incoming alerts. For those with significant hearing loss the other sense employed for recognition of incoming alerts would be sight. However, the CMAS rules do not require the use of light as an indicator that an alert is incoming. Future rulemakings on CMAS, in its second generation, should include a requirement for the use of visual cues, as well as vibration and sound, greatly increasing the likelihood of the timely receipt of such alerts.

  7. Government agencies and disability organizations should motivate industry to design and develop accessible emergency alerting methods through educational outreach on the bottom-line benefit of accessible universal design. With the technological paradigm shift from analog to digital, wireline to wireless, and the aging population, what was once considered a niche market is fast approaching the norm.

Limited dissemination of information regarding available, accessible wireless alerting technologies, products and methodologies continues to be a barrier to the effective delivery, usage and understanding of such aides. Outreach and awareness are vital to successful utilization. Increased efforts at targeted research investigating the needs of people with disabilities, dissemination of research findings, and stakeholder activity in the policymaking process could facilitate the development of a more fully inclusive national alerting system.


Two advisory bodies, a Panel of Experts (PoE) and Advisory RERC Collaborators helped to guide the research and development activity of WEC. The PoE represented the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community, community of Blind and low vision persons, and experts in emergency communications. The PoE provided a wealth of technical expertise and guidance to best accomplish project deliverables. The Advisory RERC Collaborators represent the broad intersecting disciplines of the RERCs on access to telecommunications, workplace accommodations and low vision and blindness where accessible emergency alerts have relevance. The expertise of the PoE and Collaborators assisted in developing the parameters of the field trials; review and critique test findings; provide feedback on development and research activities; assist in drafting technology recommendations for the FCC, policymakers and the wireless industry and guiding the direction for the 2009 Emergency Communications State of Technology conference.

The WEC Team Advisory RERC Collaborators

Helena Mitchell, Ph.D. Co-project Director Judy Harkins, RERC Telecommunications Access

Frank Lucia, Co-project Director Jon Sanford, RERC on Workplace Accommodations

Ed Price, Technical Director John Brabyn, RERC on Low Vision and Blindness

Jeremy Johnson, Engineer

Salimah LaForce, Information Analyst

Laurel Yancey, Chief Policy Officer

Ben Lippincott, Industry Liaison

Panel of Experts

Marcia Brooks, The Carl and Ruth Shapiro WGBH National Center for Accessible Media

Elizabeth Davis, EAD Associates

Tom Ditt, North Carolina Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Claude Stout, Telecommunications for the Deaf

The WEC team also wishes to acknowledge the contributions of the following individuals to the success of the research reported: Harley Hamilton, John Morris, and James Mueller.

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1 The deaf-blind participants were not profoundly deaf-blind, but retained some limited vision and/or hearing.

2 Dr. Mitchell was the former chief of the Emergency Broadcasting System and Emergency Alert System; Frank Lucia was senior engineer.

3 Access Alerts. Making Emergency Information Accessible to People with Disabilities.

1 U.S. Census Bureau (2000). Sex by Age by Disability Status by Employment Status for the Civilian Non-institutionalized Population 5 years and over. [Atlanta, Georgia Urbanized Metro Area] Available at

2 These questions are posed with regard to human capacity for information intake via a mobile device, not network capacity.

3 Moore, L. K. (2004). CRS Report for Congress. Emergency Communications: The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and All-Hazard warnings. August 13, 2004, Washington, D.C.

4 Factors such as the small motor in the Cingular 2125/3125 phones used in the test could have negatively impacted perception of the strength of the vibration cadence. Large phones would have stronger motors and vice versa.

1 Van de Walle, B. and Turoff, M. (2007). Emergency Response Information Systems: Emerging Trends and Technologies. Communications of the ACM 50(3): 29-31.

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