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Making Televised Emergency Information Accessible

Larry Goldberg

Director, Media Access Group, WGBH



I am glad that I’m able to follow Mike Starling.  Ever since we got involved with captioning at WGBH, people have been asking for captioned radio.  Having just met Mike a few days ago for the first time, I guess we're going to do it.  I guess we decided we're going to make captioned radio happen with some project or another. 


I am going to talk about emergency captioning and video description.  I am from the Media Access Group at WGBH in Boston, the home of the Caption Center where captioning for TV was first developed, and where Descriptive Video Service (DVS), description of television for blind and visually-impaired people, was also developed.  We've been very involved in a lot of the standards work over the years, and of late have been very involved in a lot of the emergency and access situations that have arisen.


My colleague, Marcia Brooks, will be talking this afternoon about our Access Alerts Project, looking at how all of the different forms of alerts can reach the public and be made accessible to people with disabilities.  But for now we will talk about emergency captioning and video description.


When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed and various regulations about captioning and description were first developed, the issue of emergencies was embedded right in that law, and the FCC then developed subsequent regulations around that. 


Before I talk about those legal requirements, I should make a point of showing a demonstration of video description.  It's been mentioned a number of times today.


Unlike captioning, which I don't bother to show anyone anymore because everyone has seen it (that is, if you can see), captioning is at least 10 years ahead of the game of video description.  So for those of you who have never experienced video description, I am going to play you a short audio clip, not of an entertainment program, but actually of a news report.  And I will not be showing any captions or video, it will just be the audio, and unfortunately in situations like this the interpreters and the CART reporters have a little bit of a hard time, but here is description. 


“Now our view scans down the columned face of Charlestown high school.  Police wearing riot helmets block off the streets at the entrance.  A Boston police cruiser pulls up followed by a yellow and black school bus escorted by police.  A group of police and school administrators meets the bus.  The door swings open and two African-American men step out.  One of the administrators talks to the men, then climbs on to the bus.  The riot police stand by with their hands on their hips.”


That news clip happens to be from the 1970s in Boston during the busing crisis.  But imagine if you were a parent sending your kid to school, would you probably want to know what was going on there as the reporter scanned the scene?  That's the kind of information that's rarely, if ever, made available on television today.  And you will find out in a little bit what exactly is required, and maybe what can be done in the future.


What are the legal requirements for emergency captioning and video description?  Well, it is all very well summarized in a fact sheet from the FCC entitled Accessibility Of Emergency Video Programming To Persons With Hearing And Visual Disabilities (  This fact sheet, which is almost the entire regulation, is available at the FCC's booth right out in the lobby here.  It's very succinct in terms of what is required for captioning and description.  I will give you a brief summary right now.


First of all, in general, emergency information must be provided both aurally and in a visual form.  These rules apply to broadcasters, cable operators, and satellite services.  And those are the same people who are regulated by the captioning requirements, which as of January 1, 2006, will take full effect and 100% of all television will be required to be captioned with certain exemptions -- particularly that period of time when Mike Starling is working in his lab from 2:00 to 6:00 A.M. -- but there are other exemptions as well.


Emergency information is designed as information that is intended to further the protection of life, health, safety, or property.  It's pretty straightforward.  But even in this case there had to be an FCC proceeding that helped clarify this situation.  It covers weather and every possible hazardous weather condition, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, icing conditions, heavy snows, widespread fires, warnings, and watches, and that's not an inclusive list.  It is just some examples.


It includes community situations, discharge of toxic gases, widespread power failures, explosions.  And school closings and school bus schedule changes results in such conditions.  Cheryl Heppner here was deeply involved in a situation that she brought to the FCC a few years ago when there were sniper attacks in the Washington area.  At first it was deemed that that was not an emergency situation.            Very quickly once you look at where schools were closed, buses were rerouted, it was re-determined that that certainly was an emergency situation that required emergency captioning.


Critical information includes what areas will be determined by the emergency, evacuation orders, evacuation routes, shelters, how to shelter in place, how to secure your personal property, road closures, and how to obtain relief assistance.


For captioning, the audio portion of emergency programming must be provided either using closed captioning or other methods of visual presentation such as opened captioning, crawls, or scrolls that appear on the screen, even handwriting on a blackboard.  That was a situation the FCC wanted to make sure that people understood.  When stations would say, "Oh, we just don't have access to stenocaptioners," the answer was, "You could have written the information on a blackboard."


If you are putting information out on the screen or through audio, any means in an emergency should be attempted.  Of course, complete verbatim realtime captioning is preferred, but don't give up if that is not available at the moment.  The important point is that emergency information printed on the screen should not block closed captioning, and closed captioning should not block emergency information.  And that is readily doable as long as you think ahead of where you are putting your information on the screen.


For video description or access to visual information, whether a regularly scheduled newscast, or a newscast that interrupts regular programming in an emergency, the video portion must be made accessible.  Emergency information that is provided in the video portion of programming that is not a regularly scheduled newscast, or a newscast that interrupts regular programming must be accompanied with a aural tone.  This means that if you are watching a program and a text crawl along the bottom starts talking about a hurricane watch or a tornado approaching your area -- but they're not actually interrupting the program, they're just covering up the bottom -- the only thing that a blind person can rely on at that point is an aural tone.  This is what the FCC rules require.  This is obviously somewhat problematic.


An aural tone?  During a normal TV program, there are lots of aural tones that go off.  Watching some shoot-'em-up movie, how do you know there is an aural tone that tells you there a disaster during an emergency?  That aural tone is supposed to tell you to seek your information elsewhere.  Not all that helpful either.  It basically says to start flipping your channels or turn on your radio.  Clearly more information is needed in an emergency that is not a newscast or regularly scheduled program.


And like in captioning, emergency information should not block any video description, and any video description should not block emergency information which means that the audio channels shouldn't step on each other.


But looking into the future, what might the trends be in emergency program captioning or visual information and description?  Clearly there are certain things that are needed.  More steno training.  We've heard certainly that stenographers are in short supply.  If you are in the Deaf community you know interpreters are in short supply these days, well, so are stenographers, and those are the people who today are providing the largest amount of live captioning on television throughout the country, and which is required as a minimum on every TV station in the top 25 markets, and maybe even further in the near future.


Alternatives to steno training, of course, include things like CART reporting, pretty much like you see today on that screen which, in essence, is just like a stenographer doing captioning on TV.  The National Technical Institute for the Deaf has developed something called C-Print.  There are other technologies called TypeWell, and these are all ways of using your standard keyboard in order to type faster and to get textual information out there.


Steno training has been promoted in various Congressional appropriations bills over the past few years, trying to get more people in the stenographers' field, and get them on to television.  It's slow going.  It's a very difficult process, especially at the high accuracy level that you need in an emergency.  Imagine missing one syllable which says, "Evacuate," and it was supposed to say, "Don't evacuate." Those kinds of mistakes you don't want when you are captioning live television.  So a high degree of accuracy is very important.


Obviously network services, both IP and wireless, are very important.  That is, being able to get translation of audio into text from anywhere to anywhere.  That's being done today fairly regularly, where the audio can be coming from anywhere in the world, and the text data can be sent anywhere else in the world.  Just like video relay, caption translation can be done over phone lines, from anywhere to anywhere.


Many of the competitors in the captioning field are beginning to talk about cooperative agreements, being able to help each other out during emergencies.  Obviously any court reporters or stenographers who lived in New Orleans during the hurricanes were not really able to get on the air.  But people in Kansas or Boston or Los Angeles certainly could have sent their data in.  Those kinds of cooperative agreements will be very helpful for future disasters.


There is even talk of such concepts as on-demand captioning, putting information up online and having a network of providers captioning it as it appears, shared resources.  People anywhere in the world who could rapidly get their hands on audio and quickly caption it and put it back out, particularly for web-based information.


And, of course, speech recognition.  People still to this day have great hopes and dreams that automated speech recognition will solve the problems of turning audio into text.  And while it's not ready at a high degree of accuracy the way that stenographers can do today, it's certainly showing more promise than ever before, and research is getting us to the point where maybe the phrase that I used to always speak, quoting Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet who said, "Speech recognition that can do what stenographers do is five years away, and will always be five years away."

Recently I asked him if he felt that was true, and he said no.  It will definitely happen sooner rather than later.


What are the trends in emergency programming and description?  Not much.  There isn't much live description yet -- though you should know that WGBH has just launched the live description of the "Frontline" documentary program, which is described live or very close to live.  We've described the past five presidential inaugurals through the PBS system.  So live description is doable.  It's just not used that much yet.


Video description, as you probably know, is not required by the FCC.  The FCC did attempt to put some regulations in place which did exist for a number of months in 2002.  But those regulations were struck down by a federal court and so at this point any description that you see on television for news emergencies or drama and entertainment is purely voluntary, and there's just simply not enough of it.


For that reason, many members of the blind community have gotten together to lobby for legislation that's been introduced in both the House and the Senate.  In the Senate it's called S900:  The Television Information Enhancement for the Visually Impaired Act, or the TiVi Act.  It would reinstate the video description rules which, at the time that they were overturned, were only four hours a week per network anyway.  But it would add some very interesting other requirements.  The TiVi Act as written in the Senate version says that the FCC will consider whether it is economically and technically feasible and consistent with the public interest to include accessible information in its video description rules.  Accessible information is defined as written information displayed on television screens during regular programming, hazardous warnings, and other emergency information, local and national news bulletins, and any other information that the Commission deems appropriate.


That means for the first time the Commission would be required to start looking at making on-screen information accessible.  And – whether the bill passes or not -- I am very pleased to announce today that NIDRR has awarded WGBH a grant called Access to On-Screen Text.  With this project, that just started a month ago, we're going to develop technology that will turn the text that's generally printed on screen (emergency information, identifications of who is speaking, 800 numbers for example) into synthesized speech, and then fed most likely to the SAP channel, or radio reading services, or to the web.  We're just beginning.  It's a three-year project, but it has great promise and we have two TV stations ready to help us out with this.  So that we're looking forward to.


I also mentioned live video description which is really just beginning.  And another very important issue that Janina Sajka and Mike Starling have talked about is accessible user interfaces.  All of these technologies can be very exciting and wonderful, but if you can't find the on/off button, it's not usable if you are visually impaired.  While none of the regulations or rules presently call for that, the technology research is charging forward on accessible user interfaces.  And that's obviously for radios, TVs, phones, and other devices.


Finally, what can be done, and what is being done to improve the availability of captioning and description during emergencies?  More enforcement for one.  I have not yet heard of any complaints being filed with the FCC about problems with access for blind people during an emergency.  There may have been some, but I haven't seen any.  I'm seeing our friends from the FCC shaking their heads no.  Well, if there is a blind person in the audience who has been caught in a disaster emergency situation, the FCC is awaiting your complaint. 


Certainly these things have been filed in the captioning realm, and the FCC has been very proactive with a number of Notices of Apparent Liability For Forfeiture, which means large fines to TV stations in this country that fail in their captioning responsibilities.  Anywhere from $8,000 to $25,000 fines have been assessed against TV stations in California during wildfires, in Florida during hurricanes, and in D.C. during a tornado watch.  So the captioning complaints have been effective, but on the visual access side they have not been filed yet.


Certainly the FCC requirements for access for blind people really do need to be improved.  This aural tone is really not going to do it in terms of alerting a blind person that something is going on, and they need to take action.  We're going to be working with newsroom vendors and industry associations, the Radio and Television News Directors Association, the National Association Of Broadcasters, and the National Cable Television Association.  We'll help inform them, educate them about their access requirements, the technologies that they can be using, and how they can improve their service to people with disabilities. 


Definitely more research and development is needed on speech recognition, and we're pursuing that but every high-tech company in the world trying to make the best speech recognition systems, both speech input and speech output.  Those advances are happening.  As I said, outreach and training are needed, particularly for video description.  TV stations and broadcasters really do need to understand that they should not say, "Call the number on your screen if you need help."

They really do need to be educated as to that, and I can assure you that they don't know that "call the number on your screen" just doesn't work for the blind person.


And for any other future developments, see Mike Starling at NPR labs. 


We're excited about HD radio.  We know that there's a few years to go before that can be accomplished.  We know also issues of battery-power and power consumption issues need to be taken care of.  But we're very excited to be working on captioned radio and digital radio for blind folks as well.


David Poehlman, Maryland Technical Assistance Program.  Larry, this is something that I said at every FCC gathering that I attended because it's so fascinating.  A couple of years ago we were sitting and watching nighttime programming on Comcast.  We heard this voice say, "Tune to channel 8.  Tune to channel 8" along with a beep.  So we tuned to channel 8, and it said, "Now it's time for the sports."  Okay.  So why did do I that?  So I flipped back to the station I was watching.  And a little while later, "Turn to channel 8.  Turn to channel 8.  Beep"  I flipped it over to channel 8 again.  "And now, ladies and gentlemen, it's time for the golf roundup."  Wait a minute.  What's going On here?  I thought nothing of this.  A few days later I hear, "Tune to channel 8.  Tune to channel 8."  So I said what if I don't?  Well, I tuned to channel 8 and still the same old thing.  Why are you telling me to do that when there is nothing for me to do?  So they got it halfway.  Maybe they were testing us to see if we would actually do it.  I just thought I would tell that you little story. 


LG:  Well, it sounds like they were attempting to meet a requirement there, or test out the idea of redirecting your attention.   We'll have to look into that because if you did tune to channel 8 and there was an emergency that was wonderfully effective situation.  But if it was a golf manufacturer trying to sell you golf clubs, that wasn't so great.  But that's the way that it should work if there was really a problem.


Audience member:  Larry, is there perhaps a problem when they say, you know "Call the number on the bottom of your screen," the reason being it's one broadcast, but different numbers added to the screen so the person making the announcements has no idea what the number is for each of the local places.  Now, obviously a local station ought to talk over the top and add the number and also patch in some audio.  The speaker could have a moment of silence and say, “which is,” and then stop, and then the local station could flash the number and read it.  But I was wondering if that was the same kind of thing that might have been happening with the channel 8 just now in that some place in the United States channel 8 was the proper place to go, but that it was being fed out someplace. 


David Poelman:  It was a local feed that was giving us the instruction to tune to channel 8. “Tune to channel 8” was coming from a local feed. 


LG:  These all need to be taken into account, and whether the synthesized speech which will grab the local data would work, or whether that's coming from a national source, that all needs to be discovered.  Yeah, that could be an issue. But these are mostly local situations are talking about and those are the easier situations to deal with. 


Audience member:  The number on the bottom of your screen is something that the screen reading software is attempting to pick up? 


LG:  Yes. 


Audience member:  Hi.  My name is Michelle.  I wanted to ask you a question.  As a Deaf consumer who watches captioning, and you obviously all work with the FCC, there are sometimes cases where I would like to watch weather-related events on cable, like the National Weather Service, and I know that 2:00 A.M. to 5:00 or 6:00 A.M. they're not providing that service.  I understand that.  But the reason that I am watching is because there is some disaster imminent and that will have a huge impact, and we need to have that information.  So not having that kind of information captioned, why can't special arrangements be made in those off hours for that kind of situation?  And then another part of my question is also, I'm an east coast person.  2:00 A.M. to 6:00 A.M. I am generally asleep.  But when I go to Seattle they shut off at 11:00 P.M.  So that doesn't benefit then folks on the West Coast having those off hours.  How can that be managed? 


LG:  The 2:00 A.M. to 6:00 A.M. exemption is at local time.  So it's 2:00 to 6:00 in local time in Seattle, or 2:00 to 6:00 local time in D.C.  So it's not the same time nationally.  But the emergency requirements are not exempt from 2:00 to 6:00.  They apply across the board.  So if there are alerts or warnings happening at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, those need to be made accessible.  So that's not judged by an exemption of 2:00 to 6:00 A.M.


Audience member:  Maybe I wasn't clear.  You are right.  I understand that.  But the National Weather Service sometimes will say, you know, here is a hurricane, and you won't believe it, I am blowing away.  None of that stuff gets captioned when it's going on at those hours (2-6).  And that's still important information even though it's not in my local area.  I as a consumer want to be able to see what's going on in the other areas. 


LG:  I would recommend that file comments in a proceeding that is right before the Commission right now.  Comments are due by November 10th, so you've got eight days.  And you should make that comment that that restriction is not applicable to you, and you think that 2:00 A.M. to 6:00 A.M. exemption should be overturned.  These are the kinds of things that the FCC is gathering right now and you have your opportunity to comment.  It's very easy to do.  You just send an e-mail.  No fancy filing.  Just say timing is no longer a relevant issue, and you would like to see it overturned. 

Presently it is in the rules, but you should apply to get it turned over. 


Audience member.  Thank you. 


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