Communication Board for First Responders

Each year, the Peoria Area Speech Language Hearing Association (PASHA) completes a community service project in recognition of May is Better Speech and Hearing Month. In June of 2021, with 11 months to spare, PASHA thought they would get a jump start on our 2022 project. After a long year of Zoom sessions, the board enthusiastically met in-person to discuss a recent article they had read in the ASHA Leader, which depicted the development of communication boards by a speech-language pathologist for use by first responders in the Pennsylvania area. The PASHA board members supported the idea of how to replicate this project in their own community. This discussion set in motion the collective purpose of developing a communication system for individuals in the Central Illinois area who are non-speaking or find themselves with complex communication needs in the event of an emergency.
The first step in this journey was to determine if there was a need in the community for first responders to have a communication system when responding to emergency situations. PASHA reached out to Josh Bradshaw from Advanced Medical Transport and Dr. Matthew Jackson, medical director for the Peoria Area EMS with OSF Healthcare, who readily embraced the idea of first responders having a means in which they could obtain information from their non-speaking patients so they could gather critical medical information quickly and effectively. With confirmation that there was a need for these Augmentative and Alternative Communication Boards for emergency responders, PASHA board member, Carrie Kerr, developed a picture-symbol communication system.
Development of the board began with a review of what already existed for low-tech communication systems. We learned that there were other systems for communicating medical needs, but they either consisted of multiple pages or were related to general medical care. We needed a system that was no more than one page (two-sided) and specifically addressed questions that first responders asked when assessing patients on the scene of an emergency situation. Utilizing the Boardmaker® program, Carrie designed a system to follow the assessment protocol of first responders. The design also ensured a modality for patients to deny or affirm information with yes/no symbols, provide the rating of pain through a pain scale, specify the location of the medical problem through a body diagram, and provide novel communication through access to a QWERTY keyboard. Dr. Jackson and Carrie met several times to review drafts, consider how it would be used in different scenarios, and suggest edits. After a few versions, they landed on their first prototype and determined it was ready for production.

After development of the AAC board prototype, two hundred Augmentative Alternative boards were copied and laminated for distribution to first responders on ambulances. Use of the AAC boards will allow patients to point to symbols to give a brief health history, describe what happened and what help they need.
To help further educate the first responders about the AAC board, PASHA partnered with several community EMTs to roll out the tool and create a video for training or resource purposes.  In development of this video, local media affiliates broadcasted the story on the nightly news as well as in an NPR radio segment. These local broadcasts, combined with other social media connections about the project, became catalysts that spurred a multitude of interests from outside providers, including a doctor from our Level 1 hospital’s emergency room, area firefighter departments, and other speech-language pathologists from across the country.  The demand for requests and questions regarding the low-tech communication tool resulted in formatting the tool as a PDF document that is available here.

Now that this project has garnered attention from multiple agencies, the next steps include obtaining feedback about the use of the tool. Over the next three months, the first responders will record data regarding how often the tool was used, in which situations it was implemented and what benefits or difficulties were noted with this tool.  After reviewing the data, revisions and/or additional needs will be determined and subsequently designed for the EMTs. PASHA's continual hope for this project is to provide education and resources to first responders in our community as well as other communities on how beneficial these communication systems are and how to use them when someone is in need of an alternative form of communication.
You can view the news story on this project here.

PDF EMT AAC Board available here