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The city candidly states it can save $6.3 million if it can deactivate the public boxes. The use of these boxes, of whatever type, has declined substantially. The increase in mobile phone usage is a significant factor in these trends. Emergencies are most often reported by phone, and the City has promoted calling 911 to report emergencies. Street alarm boxes report only 0.5% of all structural fires, 1.4% of non-structural fires, 0.6% of all non-medical emergencies, and 0.2% of medical emergencies. However, the rise of mobile phones and their significance in reporting emergencies from the street does not suggest that the deaf and hearing impaired, who cannot yet use mobile phones to report emergencies, no longer need street alarm boxes.
ADA is all about “meaningful access,” not equal access. See Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2011).
The City continues to rely on the availability of 911 and what is known as the tapping protocol; a system of one and two taps indicating what type of emergency. Judge Sweet ends by stating,
“The Court is sympathetic to the burdens imposed by the expensive, false-report-prone street alarm box system. 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. The injunction remains an equitable solution.
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.” 2011 WL 5995182 at
So, Judge Sweet upholds the injunction finding that while times have changed, they haven’t changed enough for him to allow the removal of public alarm boxes.
NYC, then, must bear the cost of continuing what really is a system relegated to the past. The payphone is in its final moments of survival and I suspect so is the public alarm system. Who remembers the earliest alarm system in early England? Whoever witnessed or discovered a crime was required to raise the hue and cry and call out against the offender. It was an offense not to join the chase. And — if you were hearing impaired could you use the “who knew!?” defense?
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