A federal lawsuit filed last week aims to improve access to 911 service for the estimated 82,000 Arizonans who are deaf or hard of hearing, and although the only defendants named are State of Arizona and Maricopa County officials, the plaintiffs’ legal counsel says other counties and cities are expected to be added as defendants.

Currently, residents with hearing or speech problems can only seek help from a 911 call center by using special equipment or a relay service, which allows the user to type or sign a message into a device that is reviewed by someone at a relay service agency, who then passes on the message to a 911 call center.

A complaint filed Feb. 11 in U.S. District Court in Phoenix states the process (often referred to as TTY or TDD) is cumbersome and time consuming. It also requires the user to be where the device is or to have landline phone access or an internet connection, which significantly limits a disabled person’s ability to request help in an emergency.

In several states, another option allows anyone with a wireless phone to send a text (SMS) message to the phone number 911. However, none of Arizona’s 911 call centers are capable of accepting such incoming text messages, resulting in the sender receiving a bounce-back notice that the emergency message could not go through.

That happens, according to the lawsuit, even though the nation’s wireless providers (such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint) can transmit those text messages because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that capability because of “the unique value of text-to-911 for the millions of Americans with hearing or speech disabilities.”

The complaint, which was filed on behalf of several Arizona residents by the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), says disabled Arizona citizens are at risk because officials with responsibility for emergency call systems have not updated their technologies to be able to accept text-to-911 messages.

There are eight 911 call centers in Cochise County: the cities of Benson, Bisbee, Douglas, Huachuca City, Sierra Vista and Willcox, along with the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office and Fort Huachuca. None are listed on the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau’s text-to-911 readiness registry.

The complaint notes that thousands of Arizonans with other disabilities (cerebral palsy and Parkinson's) have difficulty speaking but don’t qualify for TTY or TDD service. They could be helped by text-to-911 messages, as would people in situations where being overheard talking to a dispatcher could be dangerous, such as a home invasion, domestic violence or kidnapping.

When contacted about the inability of the Sierra Vista Police Department to accept text-to-911 messages, communications supervisor Susan Papatrefon referred questions to state officials, who she says, oversee the “funding and decision-making” that impacts local agencies.

Other Arizona citizens affected by the lack of text-to-911 service may be added to the case, said Mary Vargas of Stein & Vargas, LLP, a civil rights law firm with offices in New York and Maryland. Adding plaintiffs who reside outside Maricopa County would result in additional agencies and officials being sued.

“911 is a critical life-saving program that should be accessible to everyone without exception," said NAD’s chief executive officer Howard A. Rosenblum. "With nearly everyone using text, there is no excuse for 911 not to be directly accessible by text.”

The plaintiffs argue Arizona’s current 911 system violates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. They are asking U.S. District Judge John Tuchi for an order providing “direct, immediate, and equal access to emergency 911 services through the activation of existing text-to-911 technology.”

If the case is successful, it would likely lead to improved emergency communications statewide, including the estimated 6,200 southeast Arizona residents who have hearing or speech disabilities.

Megan Rose, communications director for the Arizona Department of Administration which oversees the state’s 911 system, issued a statement Feb. 16 that the ADOA is “in the beginning stages of reviewing the lawsuit and will determine the appropriate course of action in the near future.”

The State of Arizona receives about $1.3 million each month in 911 access fees, which are charged to every landline and wireless phone number and on most sales of retail cell phones. The complaint points out that people who can’t use the current 911 systems are being required to pay for it.