In 2008, the US Department of Justice proposed new rules for Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which apply to state and local governments. The Department did not propose any changes to the rule on telephone emergency services, 28 C.F.R. § 35.162, which currently states:
“Telephone emergency services, including 9-1-1 services, shall provide direct access to individuals who use TDD’s and computer modems.”
On August 18, 2008, the NAD filed this response:
This section was originally designed to make sure that public safety answering points (PSAPs) responded directly to calls made via TTYs, so that people who are deaf or hard of hearing or who have a speech disability would not have to experience the delays inherent with calls made indirectly, through [a Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS)]. This section, as originally drafted, fails to take into consideration newer technologies that will make it possible for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to contact PSAPs directly using text or video over digital, wireless, and Internet-based technologies. The current 9-1-1 system is based on circuit-switched telephone technology that, for the most part, can only receive voice and TTY calls. However, there is significant work currently being done by numerous public safety, industry and government groups to facilitate the development of a Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1) system that is expected to begin to have initial deployments in 2009. NG9-1-1 will be enabled by an interconnected system of local, regional and state emergency services IP networks that is capable of handling text, data, images and video from wireless and digital communications devices. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) has taken a leadership role on this issue and is currently in the final stages of a two-year NG9-1-1 research and development project. DOT reports its overall vision for this system as follows:
USDOT believes that a fundamental reexamination of the technological approach to 9-1-1 is essential as our public safety emergency service networks struggle to accommodate the challenges of wireless communications and digital devices. Cellular service and most other commercial and public safety communications systems are transitioning to IP-based networks. These technologies should enable major advances in the ability of all users and public safety responders to send or receive critical information to, from and beyond the emergency services internetwork, such as emergency calls in American Sign Language via video or medically-relevant data transmitted from a vehicle crash.1
DOT has indicated that it expects local government agencies to continue to serve as answering points for emergency calls and communications services that are increasingly delivered by digital devices over IP-networks under the future system. Recently, the issue of NG 9-1-1 received a boost with the passage the “New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act of 2008,” a statute that imposes the obligation to provide 9-1-1 services on IP-enabled voice service providers, and directs the development of a national plan “for migrating to a national IP-enabled emergency network capable of receiving and responding to all citizen-activated emergency communications and improving information sharing among all emergency response entities.” Relevant to the Department’s Title II rules, that plan must “identify solutions for providing 9-1-1 and enhanced 9-1-1 access to those with disabilities and needed steps to implement such solutions, including a recommended timeline.” The new statute also directs groups representing people with disabilities to be consulted in the development of such plan.
The NG 9-1-1 system offers great promise for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Finally, these individuals will be able to directly access PSAPs using their preferred mode of communication, whether by video, text, instant messaging, or other means. However, for this migration to ensure that people who are deaf and hard of hearing are not left behind, as the rest of our country makes this dramatic transition to a digitally based and Internet-capable emergency system, ADA rules promulgated by the Department must make clear the obligation of public entities to provide direct access to their PSAPs by new technologies used by people with disabilities, as these PSAPs make the transition to NG 9-1-1.
The NG 9-1-1 system offers great promise for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Finally, these individuals will be able to directly access PSAPs using their preferred mode of communication, whether by video, text, or instant messaging or other means.2 However, for people who are deaf and hard of hearing to be fully included as our nation transitions to a digitally based and Internet-capable emergency system, the Department must become cognizant of the major changes that will be implemented by this transition, and ensure – through its new rules – that local PSAPs make the changes necessary to ensure effective communication to and from people with disabilities when NG 9-1-1 is implemented in their communities.
In light of the above, the NAD proposes the following changes to 28 C.F.R. § 35.162:
28 C.F.R. § 35.162 Telephone emergency services, including 9-1-1 services, shall provide direct access to and with individuals who use TDD’s and computer modems TTYs. In addition, these services shall provide direct access to and with individuals who use other text, and video-based telecommunications products and systems, to the extent technically feasible and as required by the NG 9-1-1 transition.
For more information about Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), see http://www.its.dot.gov/ng911/.
1 See http://www.its.dot.gov/ng911/next_gen_911_sys.htm#Next (retrieved July 24, 2008).
2 If communicating by video, it is assumed that a VRS interpreter would also be connected to the call.