WhatsApp Groups Assist Deaf in 'Hearing' Sirens

With red tape preventing many from getting beepers, smartphone SMS groups are filling the void.

Daniel Bar-On

Imagine that you’re at an event, and without any obvious reason suddenly everyone is running in panic. For the deaf and hearing impaired not usually in the range of the rockets, that was the situation this week. The first missile in the greater Tel Aviv area caught them totally by surprise.

“I was at an event in Tel Aviv and I didn’t hear the siren at all, and they told us to go into a protected space,” said Ortal Meir, director of the social club of the Shema Center for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired, a deaf 30-year-old from Rishon Letzion. “I didn’t understand because I didn’t think there would be a siren in Tel Aviv. I found it strange how people calmed down immediately and everything went back to normal afterwards – they felt safe.”

But she was afraid that she wouldn’t hear the next siren, either. They went to lend support to relatives. “It’s scary if there’s nobody in the house who hears. I don’t think we have to live with an attitude of ‘if it falls, it falls’ when we aren’t to blame for the fact that there’s no access.”

In cases of emergency the deaf and hearing impaired are supposed to use a beeper distributed by the Social Affairs Ministry that uses vibrations as a warning signal. But in fact, many people complain about defects in the system – receiving the beeper involves a complicated bureaucratic procedure, sometimes it warns of sirens belatedly and sometimes not at all – and they don’t feel it can be relied upon.

The Home Front Command responded that the reliability issues experienced during the Pillar of Defense operation in 2012 had not been repeated this time around and that it had not received any reports of problems during the current operation.

In recent years, the command has built a cellular alert system, which it hopes to roll out over the next few days, according to a statement on Thursday. At the time of writing, however, the system was not yet ready for operational deployment.

The vacuum is filled by private individuals, who formed WhatsApp groups according to place of residence. In these groups a hearing person volunteers to inform the others about a siren in their area. Shahar Dishbak, a 30-year-old deaf woman from Tel Aviv, has formed three such groups, each of them with 50 members, and is working on a fourth group.

She started during Operation Pillar of Defense. In a written interview, Dishbak tells of a frightening experience from the previous military operation: “I was in Yad Eliyahu [in Tel Aviv] in the evening, I was waiting for the bus on La Guardia Street in a section without any buildings. Suddenly a woman grabbed my hand and dragged me to a concrete structure for garbage cans and I didn’t understand what was happening. She told me that there was a siren, and then we saw the interception in the sky, very near to us. I suffered from anxiety for the next two days.”

This time Dishbak knew what to do: “From the moment the first siren was heard in Tel Aviv, from 7 P.M. until midnight I was very preoccupied. I received reports on WhatsApp, on Facebook, text messages from people who were nervous. I wrote on Facebook that I was looking for volunteers who would agree to write in real time so that we’d know we had to go to a protected space. Many people joined my status.”

One of the volunteers was her friend Shai Orbach, 28, from Tel Aviv. “I’m the hearing son of deaf parents, and have years of familiarity with the subject,” said Orbach. “As far as I know, in every conflict the government support has improved, but there are always deaf people without access to beepers. It’s not necessarily the government’s fault, but during the previous conflict there was a problem with the beepers and since the rockets had already started to fly I preferred to find a quick solution to put out fires.”

When asked about his sense of responsibility for the welfare of 50 people, he replied: “It’s scary of course, but I grew up with deaf parents before there were smartphones, so I had quite a lot of practice.”

Orbach also got practice already during the previous military operation. “During Operation Pillar of Defense I was really anxious, and had nightmares every time I went to sleep that I was liable to miss the siren,” he said. “Now I’m quite calm because the threat to Greater Tel Aviv is relatively low and there are other volunteers.

“There’s a demand for additional groups in other parts of the country,” she said. “But that’s already more than I can handle.”