Innovative 'sign language ambulance' service aims to save more lives in emergencies, reduce barriers

A neon yellow ambulance overlooks a sea view in England

Last week, the North East Ambulance Service in England announced an innovative new approach to helping disabled community members in the event of an emergency: A British Sign Language Relay Service.

Starting in May, all ambulances in the area have been equipped with an iPad, which hosts the SignVideo app, allowing first responders to speak to Deaf and BSL patients more effectively. The result? Better communication in emergency situations, and ultimately, more lives saved.

Ambulance crews will be able to use the app 24/7, reaching a video interpreter who can help first responders assess a patient’s condition and understand the next steps of their treatment. 

The on-demand service will provide support to BSL users and improve communication from first responders in emergency situations, like asking life-saving questions, and communicating care with patients.

A screenshot of a video that demonstrates how a first responder uses the SignVideo app to communicate with a patient
A screenshot of a video demonstrating the use of the SignVideo app on an ambulance. Photo via North East Ambulance Service

“As an emergency service, we are committed to delivering high quality patient care and making sure all patients receive prompt and effective communication during emergency situations,” Mark Johns, the NEAS’ engagement, diversity, and inclusion manager, said in a press release.

“Although our health advisors have access to BSL relay to support patients over the phone, we know our crews and Deaf/BSL patients sometimes face communication barriers. This partnership with SignVideo means that when a patient who is Deaf or uses BSL, we are able to triage and communicate more easily.”

A video demonstrating the service shows a paramedic interfacing with a patient, first writing on a pad to tell the patient that they will be calling an interpreter through the SignVideo app.

In seconds, the paramedic team has added a new member: a translator who acts as a liaison, virtually asking follow-up questions and giving the patient autonomy to explain their symptoms without miscommunication.

After gathering this information, the first responders also have the translator get the patient’s consent before taking vital signs and beginning care.

As of 2022, the UK government estimates that there are about 151,000 people in England, Scotland, and Wales who use BSL, 87,000 of whom are Deaf. Implementing this service is one small step towards achieving equity for folks who have long faced barriers to care.

“Deaf BSL users struggle to access the ambulance service and many other services because of the communication barriers and the lack of support and assistance that is available,” Rachel Austin, coordinator from Hartlepool Deaf Centre said in a statement.

“It’s great to see this new service being introduced by NEAS.”

A BSL interpreter can be seen on a phone while using the SignVideo app
An interpreter joins a call on the SignVideo app. Photo courtesy of SignVideo

SignVideo was created in 2004 by a Deaf entrepreneur — Jeff McWhitney — who wanted to make it possible for people to access instant BSL translation services. Since then, the technology has been employed in the UK’s public and private sectors in government, NHS, councils, banks, telecommunications providers, helplines, and more. 

This includes the 999 BSL service, which allows Deaf and hard of hearing BSL users to call for emergency help through a video hotline.

SignVideo conducts over 100,000 BSL video calls a year, answering, on average, in less than 45 seconds, according to its website.

A representative of SignVideo gives a presentation to a group of people about the 999 BSL hotline
SignVideo has helped implement other inclusive services to help Deaf and hard of hearing people get access to emergency services with ease. Photo courtesy of SignVideo

Though the timeliness is necessary for first responders, the tool can also be employed in non-emergency situations, like community engagement teams providing advice and training for NEAS staff. 

Training for frontline staff will take place over the next year and will be complete by the Spring of 2025. 

These updates are exclusive to North England, but advocates around the world have been working on ways to improve emergency communications for Deaf community members

As this service rolls out, leaders in the community are eager it will make a massive impact.

“It will hopefully remove a barrier that people experience and provide a useful tool to support Deaf BSL users and paramedics to communicate with each other in challenging and difficult circumstances,” Austin continued.

“It will help to save more lives, ensure people get the best outcome and help achieve equality between Deaf and hearing people.” 

Header image courtesy of North East Ambulance Service

Article Details

June 3, 2024 12:38 PM
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