New York City must retain emergency call boxes with fire and police buttons on streets and other locations because it has not provided an accessible alternative, a judge said in August, settling a lawsuit filed on behalf of people with hearing disabilities.
The City had sought to lift a 1996 injunction banning removal of the boxes and proposed using pay phones enhanced with a tapping mechanism as a replacement. One tap would indicate that the emergency was a fire and two taps would request the police.
However, United States District Judge Robert Sweet said that was not an adequate substitute for the call boxes and removing the devices without providing an effective, accessible alternative would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Robert B. Stulberg, a lawyer for the advocacy group Civic Association of the Deaf of New York City, represented the plaintiffs in their lawsuit against Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and the City. He also represented the plaintiffs in their initial complaint filed in 1995.
Stulberg, who is a partner at the law firm Broach & Stulberg, LLP said, “By denying the city’s motion to remove the street alarm box system, the court has rendered a life-saving ruling that promotes the rights of the deaf and hearing impaired to access essential public services.”
City lawyer Jonathan Pines said, “We are disappointed that the court, in denying our motion, is requiring the Fire Department to maintain a street alarm box system at a cost of many millions of dollars a year that has been all but abandoned by the public. Moreover, the fire boxes burden the emergency response system with calls that are between 85-95 percent false alarms in order to serve a population that the evidence suggests rarely, if ever, uses it.”
The City is working to establish an Enhanced 911 – or E-911 – system to replace call boxes but Judge Sweet said there is not enough evidence that the system is in place. Sweet added that the tapping protocol does not appear to have been tested on public pay phones. Stulberg said there is also no system to call for emergency services by text message or email.
Stulberg pointed out that pay phones are not a viable alternative because they are unevenly distributed and inconsistently maintained. “When a deaf or hearing impaired person tries to use a pay phone they have no way of knowing if the phone has a dial tone or if they’ve reached a person versus a recording so they have no way of communicating the type of emergency,” he said.
The city has 15,000 call boxes. Two-thirds have a red button for fire and a blue button for police and allow for two-way communication. The rest have a lever that callers pull to send a signal to the FDNY and do no allow for two-way communication. Dispatchers automatically know the location of the alarm box when the signal is sent.
The devices can be found on every other street, and on highways, terminals and bridges. They are also stationed in public buildings, schools, hospitals, day care centers, prisons and the United Nations. They are inspected daily to ensure their functionality.
This article was published in the October 2011 issue of Able News.