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Tangipahoa 911 launches service that gives deaf community rare access

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POSTED: Monday, July 14, 2014 - 9:04pm

UPDATED: Friday, August 8, 2014 - 12:01pm

Imagine being in an emergency, and realizing that you cannot call 911 for help. You want to, but there is no way to tell the dispatcher what's happening. There are approximately 50,000 deaf people in Louisiana who live with that reality.

But a new program is giving them hope.

The Tangipahoa Parish 911 Center began using Smart911 last week.

"I mean, all the law enforcement agencies in our parish have been waiting patiently," said Deputy Susie Cambre of the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office. "We have been setting everything up for this day. And this is a very good day."

Anyone can sign up, and it gives first responders all the information they need to know to help you.

But it is especially important for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, because now, they have a way to get help.

"That terrifies me, not knowing what to do," Cathy Cunningham said. "If it was me in the middle of a highway, not knowing how to call for help in the middle of the night. That's terrifying."

Cunningham knows how important 911 can be, because of a time when she could not use it. She is deaf, and her mother died of a heart attack.

"She was lying down on the floor, and I couldn't hear if she was breathing or not," Cunningham recalled. "I hurried, grabbed my phone, and laid it on the floor, screaming at 911 to call for an ambulance. Calling, please have an ambulance to come. Nothing. I keep dialing 911 again, trying to get my mama to revive, and I couldn't do anything.

"So I ended up running next door, banging on my neighbor's door, with my hands full of blood, but no help had come, until my neighbor made a call, phone call, to 911. But it was too late."

Cunningham said she feels unsafe on a daily basis, knowing that if she were to call 911, she could not communicate with the dispatcher. She had another bad experience during a late night drive on Interstate 10.

"Then I saw these drivers had lost control and spun around, and crashed into a tree along the interstate," she said. "Of course, the first thing in my mind, I should pick up my cell phone to call 911. And I kept looking at my cell phone, ready to call 911, and I said, 'hey, I can't. I can't. There's no way.' And my friend was driving, kept screaming at me, 'call 911!' I said, 'I can't with my cell phone.' She gave me hers, and I said, 'I still can't!'" 

The Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office had been pushing to fix that.

"We've been working on this pretty steady for about three years," Cambre explained. "And it's been very difficult, very, very difficult."

Cambre, who is deaf, and Sheriff Daniel Edwards have been the driving forces behind finding a system that people who are deaf or hard of hearing could use to call or text for help. They originally looked at a program that would only work within the sheriff's office or within the parish, but Smart911 is used by 500 municipalities in 34 states, including Calcasieu, Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes.

Users create a profile and put in all sorts of helpful information, like photos of their relatives, pets, vehicles and home, and any disabilities that first responders should know about.

"The information will only be seen by emergency workers in the 911 system, and the officers, the medical professionals, and people who need to know," Cambre stated.

Smart911 is for everyone, not just the hard of hearing. And Louisiana is talking about linking every 911 center in the state, so it could be a statewide program pretty soon.

"Meaning that, if have a problem and you call 911, no matter what parish you will be in, you will get the help that you need," Cambre said.

"That's my dream, to see it expand throughout the state," Cunningham stated. "Maybe throughout the country." 

To make the program a success, first responders need more training about how to help people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Cambre pointed out that Louisiana offers a special license plate for people who are hearing impaired, which instantly lets an officer on a traffic stop know to call for a qualified interpreter.

But people with limited hearing also need to learn that they can feel safe.

"Most of us don't think of calling the police in emergencies," Cambre mentioned. "So we need to go into our deaf/hard of hearing community and make them aware of all these situations that you can call for help."

"After those two experiences, I do not want to have any deaf person to go through what I had to go through," Cunningham added. "They could've saved their own mother. And yes, I would like to have everybody sign up for this." 

The Tangipahoa Parish 911 Center also covers St. Helena Parish.

To sign up for Smart911, click here.

To read the federal laws relating to law enforcement's treatment of the deaf and hard of hearing, click here.

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