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In case of emergency....

Building owners and property managers have been slow in meeting ADA regulations regarding emergency phones. Now you can help with the compliance effort.

While the elevator in the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., I noticed a plastic sign posted above the emergency phone. The sign instructed passengers with hearing impairments to, in emergencies, remove the handset from the cabinet and rap it against the elevator doors three times every ten minutes or so until help arrived. Aside from being mounted at the proper height, the phone violated every other Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) provision pertaining to emergency telephones.

Industry surveys show that approximately 90% of the nation's emergency phones in elevators do not meet the act's regulations. Worse yet, compliance with the newer 1993 regs requiring emergency phones in designated areas of rescue assistance--safe places in which to wait for aid--is virtually nonexistent. But you can help with the compliance effort.

Whether they contain rotary dials or miniature Touch Tone keypads, non-compliant phones require a level of manual dexterity not always possible for people with physical disabilities. Although some equipment has hearing-aid-compatible handsets, subsequent episodes of vandalism and theft have resulted in less expensive replacement units that are not hearing-aid compatible.

For years standard practice has been to include a placard of written instructions inside elevator phone-cabinets. Hard to read under the best circumstances, they discriminate against all who cannot read them in emergency situations--including lights-out power outages.

The phones are similarly inaccessible to wheelchair users. Many times they are mounted too high, and handset cords are too short. In either case, people in chairs can't get close enough to operate the equipment.

Old emergency phones were not designed with the needs of people with disabilities in mind. ADA sought to change that. Rather than attempt to retrofit a bad design, phone manufacturers had to go back to the drawing boards and start from scratch.


ADA does not specifically require emergency phones in elevators and public places. That decision is left up to local building and elevator codes. However, if local codes require emergency-phone installation, the equipment must comply with the act's requirements. Areas of rescue assistance are an exception to local authority. ADA supersedes local authority and specifies exactly which buildings must provide designated rescue areas, where the areas must be located, and how they are marked. It also calls for ADA-compliant emergency phones in each.

New requirements are based on a simple, common-sense approach. For example, elevator emergency phones in public places must not be mounted higher than 48 inches from the floor. If the phones have handsets, the cords must be a minimum of 29 inches. Door handles must meet ADA gripping requirements.

The regs also mandate that emergency phones must not rely solely on voice communication. They must be hearing-aid compatible or include volume amplification 12-18 decibels above normal. Visual means of communication also must be available.


Emergency-telephone manufacturers have responded to the ADA requirements in the following ways:

* No more dials. The new phones contain built-in dialers programmed by the installer to dial two separate phone numbers--a primary and a backup. Most commonly these phones connect the building management office and the elevator service company. However, some of the newer phones dial directly into a 24-hour emergency central-station alarm company. Once connected, the new computerized phones digitally transmit the elevator's exact location. With that information, the central-station operator can summon help and direct emergency personnel to the right building and the right elevator within that facility. Central-station dialing is becoming a popular option for building owners and managers because it places callers in contact with trained emergency professionals.

* Hands-free talk back. In order to meet the Hearing Aid Compatibility Act of 1986's amplification requirements and to eliminate ongoing problems associated with handset theft and vandalism, most manufacturers have eliminated handsets altogether and designed speakerphones.

* Visual notification. Although voice communication is preferred, emergency personnel can switch on an indicator lamp to let people with heating impairments know their request has been received and that emergency help is on the way.

* Dial-in and automatic connection features. Emergency personnel can call into the phone, which will answer automatically. This allows continuing communication with the calling parties and requires no answering efforts on their part.

* Flush and surface-mount designs. Some of the new phones are built onto a flat panel that mounts flush with the wall. This eliminates the phone cabinet and the problems associated with grasping a small door-handle. Surface-mount models look like small boxes. In both designs, the front panel contains a single push button, a visual indicator lamp, and Braille instructions.


You're probably starting to see some of these innovative phones in new construction, shopping centers, parking lots, government buildings, and on campuses. But most of this country's emergency units do not comply.

Want to help the enforcement effort and ensure your safety? Begin by opening a few doors--elevator doors, for starters. If you find printed dialing instructions and a phone with either a rotary dial or Touch Tone pad, go directly to the building manager's office and say the phone is out of compliance.

Look for designated area of rescue assistance signs on each floor of multistory buildings and check to ensure the areas have ADA-compliant emergency phones. Report noncompliance issues directly to building-management offices.

Check out other locations, such as parking ramps and lots, long corridors, hospitals, and campus pathways. ADA does not require emergency phones in these locations. However, if property managers opt to place such phones in these locations as a safety measure, the equipment automatically comes under ADA control and must comply.

We've come a long way since the days of the beat cop and his key-operated call box. Thanks to ADA, the "keys" to the call box are gone, and everyone is guaranteed equal access to emergency assistance. Well, theoretically.

As with all regulatory changes of this magnitude, writing regulations is far easier than enforcing them. Perhaps building owners just need a friendly reminder--from you.

Richard Muscoplat is a telecommunications consultant in St. Paul and a freelance writer for industry publications.
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Title Annotation:emergency phones for disabled users
Author:Muscoplat, Richard D.
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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