At a recent Illinois Hands & Voices Parent Connection meeting, a parent shared her heartbreak when her young deaf son expressed a desire to grow up and become a fireman. “I know he won’t be able to be a fireman, but there’s other things he can do,” she said.
Oh yes, I told her, he can become a fireman. And girls can grow up to be firefighters as well. I told her about the firefighter I knew who worked in a town near me. About Mike McConnell, a forest hydrologist who is trained to fight fires as well. And about a volunteer firefighter that I found through a blog, the Deaf Firefighter’s Blog.
The mom’s eyes grew wide. I could see her attitude shifting, to one of great hope for her son’s future as another barrier came tumbling down.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Neil McDevitt, a volunteer firefighter with the Montgomery Township Fire Department in Pennsylvania. Neil has been a volunteer with the department since 2003. When he’s not on duty, he works full time as a Program Director for the Community Emergency Preparedness Information Network (CEPIN) at Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Inc. (TDI).
“Our program is a FEMA-recognized training partner,” said Neil. “We developed a class called “Emergency Responders and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community: Taking the First Steps to Disaster Preparedness” and we’re also working on some other new programs as well.”
Neil wears a pager at all times and “Yes, I sleep with it on,” he shares. As a firefighter, Neil has encountered house fires and car accidents where people have died but he prefers to focus on the positive attributes of his job.
“My most memorable experience happened a few months ago. A group of students from the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Philadelphia came to my fire house for a tour.” Neil had planned to teach his regular session on fire safety, but when the students arrived, he quickly realized that he needed to switch his approach to include the deaf students with developmental disabilities.
“I wanted to give the kids some hands-on activities, so I asked a firefighter to start one of the trucks and lay out a small hose line. We set up some cones and put tennis balls on top of them. Then we gave the kids the hose line and told them to knock the balls off.” Neil took great delight in seeing the smiles on the student’s faces. “What really made it special for me was one young boy who was severely developmentally disabled—he showed no expression during any of the previous activities and he suddenly lit up in a big smile when he touched that hose line.”
When Neil first began as a volunteer, he taught a class on non-verbal communication. “My reasoning for this was that firefighters already use a lot of non-verbal communication but they never really consciously thought about it,” said Neil. “Rather than teaching ‘ASL101’ and forcing them to learn something new, I personally feel it’s more effective to make them more conscious of what they’re already doing.”
One of the tough aspects of the job is the challenge of funding interpreters for meetings and trainings. “I know it’s easy to say that it is required by the Americans With Disabilities Act—that they should be paying for it, period. If it was a paying job, I would have no problems requesting interpreters left and right,” said Neil. “However, this is a volunteer organization and my feeling was, if I came in ‘demanding’ interpreters, then I would win the battle but lose the war.” Neil, instead, tried to use creative approaches to cover the cost of interpreters. For trainings held by the county or a training academy, the interpreters were willingly covered upon request. Neil was able to obtain a small grant from Prudential Insurance company to cover the cost of interpreters for other meetings.
Neil has plans in the works to include a new position into his role as a volunteer firefighter. “Right now, I have a proposal with the Chief to create a Public Information Officer position in the department and assign me to that role,” said Neil. “We’ll be meeting to discuss that a little later in the year. Basically, the Public Information Officer is the person who works with the media and public to inform them of what’s going on with the incident.”
For every mom of a deaf and hard of hearing child who dreams of being a firefighter, Neil has this to share: “It really is a rewarding job. You’re giving back to your community, helping people in a very real and tangible way. Even if a deaf person isn’t the one in front of the hose and putting the water on the fire, they’re all working toward a common goal. I hope I never have to use American Sign Language for a deaf victim (especially since I know practically every deaf person in the township!) but I also know that I bring a talent to the table that very few departments are able to.”