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Sign of life: First responders connecting to the deaf and hard of hearing

Dave Bitters teaching Irmo firefighters sign language for emergency situations

IRMO, SC (WACH) - First responders are faced with challenges everyday while protecting the public. A key element to that is communication, but what happens when that is limited?

Dave Bitters' goal is to help bridge the gap between emergency responders and the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Bitters is familiar with the miscommunication that can occur as he is deaf, but with two cochlear implants he can now hear. He's been teaching classes at Irmo Fire District since last spring.

Bitters teaches everything from the American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet, to advanced medical signs and helps first responders how to recognize someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.

“My vision is seeing the whole state to be comfortable among different people whether your hearing, whether your deaf. I just want everything to be together as one," Bitters said. "I'm trying to eliminate that stress level so when they get in there they can remember something that I've taught them over the last several months and do the job more efficiently as well as make the deaf and hard of hearing people feel more at ease too. “

Earlier this year, a deaf man in North Carolina was shot and killed by police. His family believes it happened because he couldn't properly communicate with authorities.

Bitters hopes his training will reduce the chances of similar situations happening.

“It can be very challenging with someone that speaks well and hears well and you add in the factor of impaired speech or hearing just adds another problem," said Jason Poole, Captain with Irmo Fire District and one of the firefighters Bitters trains.

According to Bitters, there are more than 125 deaf people in the Midlands that can benefit from this training in emergency situations and even more that are hard of hearing.

“This just gives us another tool in our tool box to connect us to the deaf and hard of hearing community and to be able to communicate with them. If we do see someone in that situation we can turn to them and tell them we know a little sign and help put them at ease," explained Battalion Chief Ben Smith.

“It’s excellent training for us to help communicate with that person to better save their lives or help them in case of emergency," said Captain Poole.

Bitters also works with other agencies like the Lexington County Sheriff's Department, Rock Hill Police Department, Lexington Police and other across South Carolina.


He hopes other get involved to learn or train the community. A town hall will be held November 12 by the South Carolina Association of the Deaf and the HLAA Midlands Chapter to connect first responders to the deaf community.

It will be held at Still Hopes Episcopal Retirement Community Event Center located at 1 Still Hopes Drive, West Columbia 29169.

Dave Bitters can be reached at dabitters@gmail.com.

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