Tech Tests Wireless Emergency Alert System for Visually Impaired

Researchers at Georgia Tech's Wireless Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center received good news last month during testing of their Wireless Emergency Communications (WEC) project. Results indicate that 94 percent of blind and visually impaired test subjects found WEC to be a significant improvement over their current methods of receiving emergency alerts.

Given that 18 percent of Americans are thought to have some type of disability, and that an estimated 60 percent of Americans use wireless services, it was not surprising that the Center's Survey of User Needs (SUN) revealed that people with disabilities are significant users of wireless products and services. Further, 65 percent of those respondents said that their wireless devices were important because of the role they play in summoning help in an emergency.

"The advantage of accessible emergency communications software and devices is that they can reach the user, no matter what their activity or location, with lifesaving information," said Helena Mitchell, executive director of the Center for Advanced Communications Policy and project director for WEC. "In the end, people with disabilities have the right to expect that the technology they use on a regular basis is capable of providing them with emergency communications and timely warnings and alerts."

This first field test involved participants from the Georgia Radio Reading Service in a full-day study to engage the effectiveness and accessibility of this prototype emergency alerting system. Subjects ranged from sight-enhanced individuals to those who are fully blind. Additionally, the test subjects' level of familiarity and use of wireless technologies ranged from technically savvy to infrequent users.

Mobile phones with WEC custom software featured an audio-oriented interface and text-to-speech reading of emergency alerts for the visually impaired; the capability to recognize an incoming alert of critical importance and override any muted sound or vibration settings to ensure that the critical alarm was delivered; and an alert attention signal that is identical to the national Emergency Alert System (EAS) tone familiar to the hearing population.
WEC sent a series of SMS messages (text messages) to Cingular 3125 Smartphones provided to each test subject.

WEC tested custom software that runs on a Windows Mobile OS, designed to send accessible emergency alerts to short message service (SMS) capable handsets. The custom software then presented the content of the text alert in an audio format. WEC engineers simulated the emergency alerts, employing the Common Alerting Protocol, as if they originated from the National Weather Service.

Three separate weather alerts of increasing intensity were issued to participants over a period of time. Many of the test subjects liked the idea that with each 'test message' the alert signal got louder, indicating the severity of the event. In all three test groups, affordability was raised as an important issue. Some noted they liked the 'repeat' option in case they did not hear it clearly the first time, and that it was 'superior to just receiving alerts from TV, radio or friends,' in which cases the alerts might not be targeted or immediate. Others felt that the specialized software would not only benefit them, but also their family and friends who might be on public transportation, biking, hiking or anyone away from home carrying a mobile device.

Additional field tests are slated for upcoming months in 2008, including at Public Broadcasting Atlanta and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, New York in June. In the NTID field test the WEC software will have the additional feature of vibration alarms that will notify the deaf and hard-of-hearing population of incoming alerts. A full report on the field tests is expected to be completed in the Fall of 2008, when all the test results and user feedback is complete. Primary funding was made possible by the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

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