Providing access in a crisis: Captioning with FEMA

By Deanna Baker

Sheri Smargon, RDR, CRR, CRC, has shared her experiences on social media working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and I thought everyone would enjoy hearing more about these adventures.

Sheri, tell us a little about your background as a CART captioner, I know it’s extensive.

I started captioning directly out of court reporting school in 1992, working for our local county commission. We were the first county in the nation to caption its government meetings, and it was in an open caption format, which means that anyone turning to the channel could see the captions, whether they wanted to or not. In the early days, it probably was more of a “not” situation. The people in charge figured if you could write “on that machine,” you must be able to caption. Boy, we proved them wrong!

After two years, I moved from Florida to Pittsburgh, Penn., and went to work at VITAC, the country’s largest captioning provider. I loved the job, but hated the weather. I’m from Massachusetts originally and thought I missed snow and seasons. Not so much! So after two years, I moved back to Florida and started freelance work for the local court reporting firm who had the contract with the county courthouse for court reporters.

During that time, even though we had a seniority system, I was the only one with any realtime or captioning experience, so I was given the opportunity to realtime a vice presidential debate with Al Gore and Jack Kemp. I was realtiming, and a transcript of my work was being printed every 15 minutes for the hundreds of national and international media that were in attendance. It was quite the experience.

I only did court reporting for a short time because then I got a job with Caption Colorado, captioning from home. I worked there for seven-and-a-half years. During my time with Caption Colorado, I captioned a lot of news, baseball games, and the Olympics a few times.

Then the opportunity to caption in Sydney, Australia, popped up. So I moved to Sydney to work for the Australian Caption Centre. While there, I captioned everything from news and reality TV to sports, like cricket and rugby. It was quite a learning curve because I had to adjust my dictionary to true English spellings (colour, favour, etc.) I worked there for six months and moved back to Florida, picking up with a few captioning companies and a court reporting firm.

I went to an NCRA Convention & Expo in New York City and ran into my old boss and former NCRA President Kathy DiLorenzo. She told me VITAC was hiring, so I should apply again. I did apply because now they were allowing people to work from home, versus having to move to Pittsburgh. I was hired on by VITAC in 2007.

While there, I captioned everything from CNN to the Stanley Cup Finals to the Olympics. I also captioned a couple of musicals on NBC: “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.” Never having seen either the movie or the stage production of either tale, there was a bit of a learning curve for sure!

I left VITAC in January of 2016 to strike out on my own as an independent contractor, trying to find different CART and captioning experiences. My final job with VITAC was captioning the Golden Globe Awards. So I think I went out on a high point.

(August 18, 2007 Denver, Colorado)  FEMA's Denver based MERS leave for Texas to support operations ahead of hurricane Dean. Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA

(August 18, 2007, Denver, Colo.) FEMA’s Denver-based MERS leave for Texas to support operations ahead of hurricane Dean.
Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA

How is it you started working with FEMA as an independent contractor? What was the hiring process like?

I am the administrator of a group on Facebook called The Captioning Klatch. I started it a few years ago, just as a place to come and talk about all things captioning and CART related. One of our members posted that FEMA was hiring for CART writers, so I looked at the job description and decided to apply.

The hiring process involved a lot of paperwork … reams, it seemed like at times. Eventually, I was given an interview, but no one told me it would be a Skype interview. So I was in my pajamas, with no makeup on, because I was in the middle of my captioning day. I kept my webcam aimed pretty high that day for sure!

I was asked a lot of questions by interviewers, both hearing and Deaf, and then I was given a practical examination, where the interviewers could see me caption. The clip they played for me was a press conference from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Luckily, I had captioned the news from Louisiana during that time, so I had all of those cities and parishes in my dictionary.

A short while after the interview, I was offered the job, contingent on a thorough background check and security clearance. While I have nothing to worry about, having the FBI contact friends and family is kind of freaky!

You were deployed to an assignment in North Carolina. What was an average day, the good and the bad, and how you were helping in this emergency situation? How much notice did you have beforehand?

When there’s a disaster and the Joint Field Office (JFO) is opened, that becomes the hub in the state for FEMA employees to go and work. They go out in the field to different locations, called Regional Field Offices (RFOs) but in general, the main administration and IT, etc., are located at the JFO. They work a minimum 12 hours a day, seven days a week, in the first couple of months, just because of the sheer number of things that have to be accomplished to help the disaster survivors.

When I arrived at the JFO, the disaster was so new that in the first few weeks of the aftermath, staff was in a temporary location while they looked for a permanent location. FEMA remains on-site, with a state presence, for quite some time. There is still FEMA staff in Louisiana working on Katrina, if that gives you a timeline. So I was with everyone else in the temporary offices, basically, just finding a spot to sit where I could.

My first day at the temporary JFO, I was issued a FEMA computer, signed paperwork, got login information. All of the usual boring, but necessary, aspects of being on a temporary assignment with the government. I then had to be issued a projector and a portable screen for me to take to any realtime jobs that may be scheduled. When all was said and done, between my personal equipment, a FEMA computer, a projector, and a screen, I had more than 100 pounds of equipment to carry with me.

There are no average days when it comes to a disaster. The slogan is “If you’ve been to one disaster, you’ve been to one disaster.” Every day is different. I would go into the office at 7 in the morning, and see what the schedule was like for the day. If a disaster site wanted or needed sign language interpreters, they would put in a request and that was added to the interpreters’ schedule. And almost always, the meeting was at 5 or 6 at night with a couple hours’ drive to get to the location. Because I was the one and only realtime reporter, I was assigned to larger events, so that we could reach more people. Sometimes, it was a gymnasium with 200 people; sometimes, it was a city council chamber with 30 people. Every day was something different.

There were also days where we had no assignments to cover, but I would still go into work at 7. I would work on my dictionary, go through a recently written file to add acronyms or anything I may have gotten wrong. Eventually, on days where I didn’t have a meeting, I decided to hook up my projector and aim it toward the wall and practice to whatever I could find on the Internet.

I believe you were gone for two weeks. How were you able to manage your own clients and regular work at home?

Because I work with a great court reporting firm, they were able to take me off the books the week before I deployed. I was initially supposed to deploy to a staging area in Atlanta, Ga., because of the fact there was no office set up in North Carolina yet. So I was already off the books for my court reporting firm and wasn’t accepting or bidding on any CART or captioning work. I ended up not going to Atlanta and just having my deployment delayed a week, which was great for me because I had a court reporting training class in Washington, D.C., that I had scheduled months previous to my deployment. Gratefully, scheduling worked out for me.

Were you using your own equipment? What was your setup? Were you working with any other CART captioners?

I was mostly using my own equipment, yes. So I brought my Luminex, cables, cords, extensions, laptop, and cool table with me. FEMA provided the projector and the screen. I wrote a proposal for FEMA to buy everything they needed for the CART project, but as of this time, it’s still bogged down in purchasing … or somewhere governmental.

FEMA wants to hire 37 more CART captioners over the next three years. So far, they have hired myself and one other reporter in Ohio, Molly Adams. We both deployed once with the caveat we will use our equipment one time, and then FEMA would have to purchase what we needed. Our concern was if our personal equipment breaks while in the field, we can’t work while deployed and we can’t work when we get home. It’s not like you can go buy most of our gear at Best Buy. So, Molly and I continue to wait.

Are there any unique skill sets that are needed for this type of work?

You have to be okay with not being home for an extended period of time. I did 30 days, and that was a lot. Most people do 60- to 90-day deployments and can rotate home for two weeks at a time.

You have to be okay with being in a strange place and not having your creature comforts of home, potentially. I was in a rural area, and I’ve never traveled behind so many tractors! You’re staying in a hotel, most likely. And while the hotel I was in was nice, there was no oven. It had a stovetop and a fridge and microwave, but no oven. What I wanted most was a roast. I learned tips and tricks on how to find rooms with full kitchens, so next time I get deployed, I am hopeful a roast will be in the offing.

Would you recommend this type of work to other CART captioners?

I would totally recommend this to CART captioners. While there were never any people who were Deaf or hard of hearing at any of the meetings I went to, I was thanked quite a bit by people in attendance, who either were taking notes and missed what was said or just thought it was nice to have access. Most didn’t even realize how the “words were getting up there” on to my screen. They didn’t realize it was a real person. So the education aspect was especially nice.

Is this a long-term assignment?

We have a two-year contract, which may or may not be renewed when that time comes. Hopefully, I will be able to report a positive update in the next few months regarding our equipment. Obviously, if you get deployed, it means someone, somewhere, is having the worst day of their life. You wouldn’t want that, but you also want to be there to be helpful, if you can.

I wouldn’t want this to be my full-time job due to the traveling and being away from home, but branching out and helping people, actually one on one, is quite a rewarding experience.

 

Deanna Baker, RMR, is a broadcast captioner in Flagstaff, Ariz. She can be reached at dpbaker@mindspring.com.

County and state agencies launch program that helps deaf and hard of hearing

jcr-publications_high-resThe Foothills Focus reported on Jan. 11 that Maricopa County, Ariz., Emergency Management has teamed up with state agencies to launch a pilot three-day program that includes training for American Sign Language interpreters and Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) captioners.

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On-air Collier County, Fla., Commission meetings now captioned

jcr-publications_high-resThe Naples Daily News, Naples, Fla., posted an article on Jan. 18 that announced closed captioning of Collier County Commission meetings that are aired on local television. “I was amazed at how much [the captioners] put into this. I’ve been very impressed with how much they pick up,” said Troy Miller, manager of television operations for the county.

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NCRA re-appointed as representative on FCC Committee

Photo by Greg Elin

Photo by Greg Elin

NCRA has been named to serve a two-year term as a representative member on the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Disability Advisory Committee (DAC). The appointment was announced Jan. 5 and marks the second time NCRA has been named as a representative.

NCRA joins nearly two dozen other parties representing a number of companies, nonprofit organizations, and individual consumers serving on DAC’s Technology Transitions and Access to Video Programing subcommittees.

The FCC established the DAC in December 2014 to provide advice and recommendations to the Commission on a wide array of disability issues within its jurisdiction. The DAC is slated to remain active for two years, with meetings of the full committee and four subcommittees to begin next week.

According to the FCC, the DAC provides a means for stakeholders with interests in accessibility issues to exchange ideas, facilitate the participation of consumers with disabilities in proceedings before the Commission, and assist the Commission in educating the greater disability community and American with Disabilities Act-covered entities on disability-related matters. The Committee is expected to keep the Commission apprised of current and evolving communications issues for persons with disabilities. Other subcommittees include Communications, Emergency Communications, and Relay/Equipment Distribution.

Matthew R. Barusch, NCRA’s Manager of State Government Relations, who will represent the Association, said the Access to Video Programming Subcommittee will address televised emergency information, closed captioning, video description, and equipment designed to receive, play back, or record video programming.

“Serving on the second chartered DAC is consistent with NCRA’s appointment on the first charted DAC. This appointment allows NCRA to continue to have a voice in FCC recommendations related to captioning and how it will meet the needs of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community,” Barusch said.

The first meeting of DAC’s new term is tentatively set for March 21 at the FCC’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Additional tentative meeting dates include mid-June and mid-October.

The 2016 election: How the results will affect the profession

Photo by Vox Efx

Photo by Vox Efx

By Matthew Barusch

At long last, this election is over. The American people have cast their ballots, and perhaps the most unique and consequential presidential campaign in recent history has reached its conclusion. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been elected as the 45th President of the United States. President-elect Trump will now prepare to govern with a fully Republican Congress, and for the first time since 2001, the Republican Party will have control of all three branches of government.

The effects of a Trump administration on the court reporting profession are relatively uncertain, partially because uncertainty surrounds his upcoming presidency. Trump will be expected to fulfill numerous promises he made during his campaign, including his policies on immigration, the economy, and foreign affairs. Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be able to target all of the Obama administration policies that the party has been fighting against for years, including the Affordable Care Act, executive orders on immigration, and energy restrictions on fossil fuels. The vacancy on the Supreme Court will also likely be filled within the first few months. Merrick Garland’s nomination is likely to be tossed aside after Trump’s inauguration in favor of a conservative judge off the list he circulated during his campaign.

With these issues as the primary focus going into Trump’s presidency, issue areas affecting the court reporting profession such as education will likely take a back seat. If and when education is taken up, it will potentially be viewed as an area for budget cuts, which may rule out any new appropriations for court reporting programs.

Trump has also spoken to his desire to make the country safer and improve the country’s infrastructure. A case could be made for the revival of the Local Courthouse Safety Act, particularly in a time where the country is focused on violent shootings and the public is uneasy. In past iterations, the proposed legislation would distribute existing surplus security equipment to local and state courthouses to enhance the security infrastructure of courthouses that lack them. Such legislation would speak to Trump’s campaign promises; however, it is likely that the focus of his administration and the 115th Congress will be on fulfilling his more high-profile pledges.

A broader look at the congressional elections shows that members of Congress who support the court reporting industry have been re-elected on both sides of the aisle in both chambers. In the Senate, Sen. Patty Murray has won re-election in Washington with 61 percent of the vote. Sen. Murray is likely to become Minority Conference Chair in the Senate and remain the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which will give NCRA a powerful ally in the Senate minority. In the House, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries in New York, Rodney Davis and John Shimkus in Illinois, Suzan Delbene in Washington, Ron Kind in Wisconsin, and Dennis Ross in Florida all won re-election. As a result, NCRA retains a strong list of allies on important committees, such as the House Judiciary Committee, which are primarily responsible for addressing education issues of import to the profession. There are also some newcomers to Congress this cycle who are likely to support initiative affecting court reporting. One such person is Jimmy Panetta, who won election in California as Representative for the 20th Congressional District.

NCRA will continue to work for the court reporting profession with its allies in the 115th Congress and looks forward to a hopeful and prosperous future ahead.

Matthew Barusch is NCRA’s Manager of State Government Relations. He can be reached at mbarusch@ncra.org.

Deaf community asks for more interpreters, closed captioning

JCR publications share buttonSioux Falls, S.D., residents who are hard of hearing are calling on city officials to provide more interpreters and closed captioning services to provide them with greater access to local government and jobs. This was reported in the Argus Leader on Oct. 24.

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Online newspaper reprints NCRA advocacy article

An article authored by NCRA Director of Government Relations Adam Finkel, which appeared in the April issue of the JCR, was reprinted in the April 25 issue of AMERICOURT University Prose, an online newspaper that serves the legal community. Finkel’s article, “Legislative Update: The effectiveness of grassroots advocacy,” was reprinted under the politics section of the paper.

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NCRA submits comments to the FCC on qualified captioners

On March 15, Adam Finkel, NCRA Director of Government Relations, submitted comments to the Federal Communications Commission in response to a report filed by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. NCRA’s comments corrected an assumption that there are not enough captioners to cover media markets outside of the top 25. Among other points, Finkel pointed out the availability of training (including NCRA’s new Certified Realtime Captioner certification) and that some captioners are unable to accept work despite being qualified due to the inconsistent transition between POTS lines and the IP lines. “Like the consumer groups and NAB, NCRA shares the goal of ensuring high-quality captioning,” Finkel stated in the comments.

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NCRA member discusses broadcast captioning in radio interview

The Takeaway interviewed NCRA member Amy Bowlen, RDR, CRR, CRC, a broadcast captioner from Imperial, Pa., and manager of training at VITAC, on March 3 about her captioning the recent GOP debates. Bowlen is also chair of NCRA’s Council of the Academy of Professional Reporters.

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Space is filling fast for 2016 NCRA Legislative Boot Camp

NCRA Legislative Boot Camp logoRegister now to join the leaders from more than 40 state affiliates from across the country who are participating in the 2016 NCRA Legislative Boot Camp being held March 20-22 at the Hyatt Regency in Reston, Va. Space for the event, which is sponsored by NCRA’s government relations department, is limited.

Attendees will participate in sessions that include an introduction to politics, grassroots lobbying techniques, effectively communicating with the press, understanding NCRA’s 2016 federal initiatives, building lasting relationships, and what to expect when visiting lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The schedule also includes mock hearings and role-playing exercises, as well as tips on how to promote the profession to external audiences and consumer groups and how to successfully testify before legislators.

Tiva Wood, RDR, CMRS, NCRA President-Elect, a freelance reporter from Mechanicsburg, Pa., has attended the camp twice. “Participants in the NCRA Legislative Boot Camp leave this intensive and very informative event armed with the knowledge and confidence they need to work with their lawmakers to help ensure that issues with a potential impact on the court reporting and captioning professions are addressed swiftly and accurately and in the highest professional manner possible,” she said. “The mock trial and role-playing exercises are extremely beneficial as well for preparing participants for their visits to Capitol Hill.”

Lead presenters will include Adam Finkel, NCRA’s Director of Government Affairs, and Dave Wenhold, CAE, PLC, from Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies.

The two-day training culminates with a trip to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where attendees will have the opportunity to meet with their respective legislators and their professional staff members, and gain experience in lobbying. Attendees will also have the opportunity to attend an event with one of NCRA’s legislative supporters.

During visits with lawmakers, Boot Camp attendees will be encouraged to urge their representatives to reauthorize the Training for Realtime Writers grants under the Higher Education Act passed by Congress in 2009. The Act created a competitive grant program to train realtime writers to provide both captioned information and communication access for the 30 million Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing. Programs established with past grants also aided working reporters in learning and polishing realtime skills.

Registration for the 2016 NCRA Legislative Boot Camp is available online at NCRA.org/bootcamp. The cost is $175 per attendee. For more information, contact Adam Finkel, NCRA Director of Government Relations, at afinkel@ncra.org.