MANHATTAN (CN) – New York City cannot deactivate deaf-accessible street alarms, even though studies have shown those alarms are expensive, widely abused and ineffective, a federal judge ruled.
On Oct. 10, 1995, the Civic Association of the Deaf of New York City and Stephen G. Younger II filed a class action lawsuit seeking, and winning, an injunction preventing the city from removing alarm boxes under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The resulting injunction barred the city from “carrying out any shutdown, deactivation, removal, elimination, obstruction, or interference with the existing street alarm box system, and from acting to replace the existing accessible street alarm box system with notification alternatives which are not accessible to the deaf.”
In 1997, a separate court order forced the city to update each box to have two buttons, one to summon the police and another for the fire department.
New York City currently has 10,159 Emergency Response System boxes, which are capable of two-way communications and dispatch fire trucks and police cars on contact.
In addition, there are 4,918 Box Alarm Readout System boxes, which operate by lever, communicate only in one direction by Morse code and also require emergency response.
City officials have tried to get rid of them for more than a decade, arguing that they are only effective in drawing false alarms.
In 2009, more than 90 percent of incidents reported to the New York City Fire Department from BARS boxes were malicious false alarms, as were more than half of incidents reported from ERS boxes.
Nearly 11,000 malicious false alarms came in from street alarm boxes that year.
The city now has protocols to avoid dispatching emergency services for apparent false alarms.
Emergency services instituted a tapping protocol to know when alarms are pressed by deaf users seeking assistance.
Citing the data, they argue that deaf and hard-of-hearing people do not use the street alarm system.
Over the past three years, the FDNY has received 43 calls in which some form of tapping was perceived, and only one of those calls reported an actual fire.
That call was the 17th report the department received, according to court documents.
The New York Office of Management and Budget estimated that deactivating the boxes would save the city $24.8 million over the next ten years, adding that the annual cost of running a fire station is only $1.7 million.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet said his hands were tied since the city must find a suitable alternative for deaf individuals who need emergency assistance.
“The court is sympathetic to the burdens imposed by the expensive, false-report-prone street alarm box system,” Sweet wrote. “This case is living proof of the idiom that ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ The city’s efforts to bring emergency services to more people now require it to maintain those services in order to provide deaf and hearing impaired persons meaningful access to report emergencies and to comply with the ADA and RA [Rehabilitation Act].”
He recommended an alternative popular in the deaf community.
“In the future, given the use of text-based communications in the deaf and hearing impaired community, allowing emergency reporting with mobile devices via text message or email may obviate that community’s need for street alarm boxes to report emergencies from the street. Regrettably, that alternative is not yet at hand.”