Deaf People and the Bushfires

australia_fire_180It has been a devastating week for Australia. First there were the floodsin far north Queensland and then there were the terrible Victorian Bushfires. The Victorian Bushfires are officially Australia’s worst ever natural disaster. Today, the 11th February, the death toll stands at 181 and there is talk that it will increase to over 300. At last count 1033 homes have been burnt down. Countless people have been either directly or indirectly impacted by these fires. Family and friends have died who lived in the path of the fires. People all over Australia have also been affected as they hear news of the loss of relatives and friends. All of us are affected in some way, some unfortunately more than others. Deaf and hard of hearing people have been impacted by these fires. There are confirmed stories of losses of homes. People associated with Deaf and hard of hearing people have lost family and friends. Parents of deaf children have lost their homes. The impact is far and wide. Our thoughts and condolences go to all people affected.

The response from the Deaf community and the Deaf and hearing impaired sector has been heartening. VicDeaf were swift in putting out information for emergency contact and support as were Deafness Forum Australia. Deaf Children Australia has pledged to match any donations raised by staff dollar for dollar. Small organisations such as the Melbourne Deaf Cricket Club are putting on a fundraising BBQ after their match this coming Saturday. Deaf Sports Recreation Victoria is exploring avenues to organise a fundraiser. The response has been outstanding and all should be congratulated.

There is still so much more that can be done. There will be meetings in communities. There may be Deaf people that attend and require interpreting support. VicDeaf are meeting this need free of charge. Perhaps there are hearing impaired people, elderly with a hearing loss who will require communication support. Perhaps Live Remote Captioning using wireless broadband and a laptop can be organised to cater for this need.  Perhaps Red Bee Captioning can offer this, also free of charge. There are many practical things that we can do.

As a community and a sector we could rally round and have a joint fundraising initiative. Perhaps a coordinated Deaf and hard of hearing day for fundraising could be organised and we could all be linked through video conferencing. All we need is to use our imagination. A sector that is so used to ASKING for support can show its strength and give back. In all of this there will be lessons to be learnt. Not only by us, the Deaf and hard of hearing community and sector but also the general community. These fires are without precedent. We have thus far REACTED and the response has been fantastic. We will learn lessons about what we needed to do before and during the event.

In all of this one wonders how people who are Deaf or hearing impaired and who resided in the fire areas coped. One wonders how they heard emergency warnings, if they heard fire alarms, if they heard the fire approaching and what strategies they had in place to deal with such an event. Already we are hearing stories of Deaf people who have been victims of the fires. Families have lost their homes and friends have died. Of course it is not only Deaf and hard of hearing people who faced extra challenges with the fires. The elderly and infirm or people who have physical disabilities would have faced extra challenges too.

Inevitably we will hear stories of these people Deaf, HOH or disabled who got caught in the paths of the fires and could not get out. We will hear of people who received warning too late to save homes or even themselves. It is horrific to think about and one wonders what extra things people who areDeaf or HOH can do to ensure their safety in such circumstances.

I did a brief internet research on fire safety for Deaf and HOH people. There is not a lot to go by. There is an article on the 106 Emergency Relay number and lots of stuff about flashing and vibrating smoke alarms. There isnothing, as far as I can see, about what to do in the case of such a fire as the recent Victorian Bushfires.

Already Premier of Victoria, John Brumby, has spoken of how the communications system broke down. The fires were without precedent. Phone links were destroyed and mobile networks became overloaded. Communications became very challenged and unfortunately many people received no warning. Brumby has discussed the establishment of an SMS type warning system to deal with such emergency situations in the future. This would be of enormous benefit to Deaf and HOH people. It was a lesson learnt, sadly and without blame, only after the event.

The event has made me think deeply about the needs of Deaf and HOH people in an emergency. A number of questions came to mind. Who do you contact for more information? Is there an SMS contact number or a direct TTY number? Is the National Relay Service fast enough or efficient enough to assist any Deaf or HOH person who needs more information about where to go and what is happening? Where is it safe to travel? What roads are blocked? Are Deaf and HOH relying on neighbours to alert them? Do their neighbours even know they need alerting? Do the fire services have a register of those that need alerting? I am no fire expert so I can only hope that these issues have been thought of and considered. I raise these issues not so much to cause alarm but more to explore the issues and strategies that may come into play. I must say that the thought of being a deaf person in the fire situation, not knowing the hell what is going on is scary indeed.

These are the lessons we will learn when the flames recede, the dust settles and the people caught up in the tragedy put their shattered lives back together. For now we can only do the best we can. We at The Rebuttal are proud of the swift response to the tragedy from the Deaf and HOH communities and of course the organisations that make up the Deaf and hard of hearing sector. Again our condolences go to all affected and we give thanks to all that have risen to the challenge this terrible tragedy has caused.

ANYONE WANTING TO DONATE TO THE BUSHFIRE APPEAL CAN DO SO BY CLICKING ON THE LINK IN THE SIDEBAR. THE MELBOURNE DEAF CRICKET CLUB FUNDRAISING INITIATIVE WILL GO DIRECT TO THE CRICKET AUSTRALIA BUSHFIRE APPEAL. DONATE TO THE CRICKET AUSTRALIA APPEAL AND EMAIL THE MELBOURNE DEAF CRICKET CLUB TO LET THEM KLOW YOU WERE INSPIRED BY THEM. THEY CAN ALSO ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR CONTRIBUTION AS PART OF THEIR INITIATIVE. THANKS FOR READING AND THANKS FOR YOUR DONATIONS TOO.

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