‘Lack of Trust in the System’ : Improved 911 for Deaf Unveiled

Times Staff Writer

When Jay Shufeldt used his telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) to call 911 for his ailing wife, Mary, on July 17, 1986, he had no reason to think that his call wouldn’t be properly answered by San Diego emergency dispatchers.

In the course of three hours he called three times, but the dispatcher on the other end never recognized the distinct electronic beeps of the TDD. After Shufeldt’s third try, an exasperated dispatcher said, “Oh, come on . . . the aliens have landed,” and hung up.

Shufeldt never knew that his calls were going unanswered, and his wife died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition that became critical as he waited for paramedics, Shufeldt’s attorney said.

New Phone Device

Pacific Bell has now completed testing a device that, three years ago, might have saved Mary Shufeldt’s life, phone officials said Monday. The new device contains a prerecorded electronic voice that will instantly tell 911 operators when deaf people are calling, telling them to hook the phone to a TDD, said Eric Sorenson(, 911 product manager for Pacific Bell.

The TDD is a device the deaf and hearing-impaired attach to their phones. It sends messages by Teletype. The message callers type on the keyboard flashes on their screens as well as on the screens of recipients, if they have hooked the phone to a TDD to receive the call.


As of Jan. 1, 1986, state law mandated that all 911 systems in the state be available to the deaf, including about 146,500 hearing-impaired people in San Diego County.

In the years after Mary Shufeldt’s death, the hearing-impaired still had problems with access to 911, said Gregg Relyea, the lawyer who has been representing Shufeldt in a suit against Pacific Bell and its parent company, Pacific Telesis Group.

Relyea also is representing Dennis Schemenauer, a hearing-impaired man whose three TDD calls to 911 for his sick mother went unanswered June 13, 1988. He finally got a neighbor to call for him.

“Fortunately, she was OK, but two years after Shufeldt died, a deaf man still couldn’t get through on 911,” Relyea said.

Looking for a Better Way

Pacific Bell initiated research to improve the TDD in the summer of 1986, after the state required the company to find out if new technology could be used to help dispatchers receive TDD callers, Sorenson said.

The sound of a TDD “could be confused with noise on the line. . . . We were looking for technology that solves that problem,” said Allan Tolman, chief of the telecommunications division for the state Department of General Services.

The new device will help prevent human error, said Bill Sloan, an engineering manager with Pacific Bell in San Francisco. Dispatchers “may have a lack of training, and they might think somebody’s playing with the phone, or they could be new and haven’t received training,” Sloan said.

Results of tests on the 19 new TDD detection devices in California have shown that they have successfully alerted dispatchers to TDD callers, Sloan said. The tests were conducted in Oakland and Fremont.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the detection device is a feature that will send the deaf caller a message that confirms that the dispatcher has received and will act on the call, said Sloan. Jay Shufeldt agreed: “If we can’t get through, and we can’t hear a voice, we have to wait for an answer. . . . There’s no other way for us to tell we’ve gotten through,” he said in an earlier interview.

‘Lack of Trust’

As 911 operates now, “there’s a lack of trust in the system . . . it’s intermittent,” said Patricia Sieglen, executive director of San Diego’s Deaf Community Services. “When operators hear the tone, they are supposed to put it on the TDD. . . . If you’re having a heart attack, and maybe you can’t speak, all you can do is pull the phone off the hook and dial--they’re supposed to dispatch.”

Linda Witt, acting interpreter coordinator for Deaf Community Services, said she no longer assures deaf people that 911 will respond to emergencies.

“I’ve always educated people that 911 will always dispatch help, regardless of whether someone speaks verbally . . . but we’re questioning what we can depend on them to do,” Witt said. “We’re encouraging people to call 911, but not assuring them that 911 will dispatch any more. We can no longer trust that that’s true.”

But operators aren’t the only ones to blame in TDD communication breakdowns, said Stan Sikorski, sales marketing director for Krown Research, which manufactures TDDs and the TDD detection device for Pacific Bell.

“You can’t blame it all on operator error,” Sikorski said. “When a deaf person calls a hearing person, he’s supposed to tap the space bar to tell them it’s a TDD call. Sometimes a deaf person calls up and, out of habit, just sits there in silence. . . . The (electronic) voice is going to help.”

A final evaluation of the detection device will be submitted to the Public Utilities Commission in the next few weeks, Sorenson said, but it will be up to San Diego 911 officials to decide whether or not to implement it.

Despite the promise the TDD detection device holds, Relyea believes that dispatchers’ lack of training can still cause problems. “There’s no need of new equipment, if they train their people . . . improving equipment won’t necessarily lead to better service,” Relyea said.

Sorenson agreed that the dispatchers are the key to preventing error. “The ultimate responsibility lies with the person who answers the phone,” he said.