City Loses Bid to Remove Call Boxes

NY Times - August 16, 2011

by BENJAMIN WEISER

A federal judge in Manhattan has refused to allow the Bloomberg administration to eliminate 15,000 emergency-help boxes from New York's streets, saying the city's proposed alternative involving public pay phones is not adequate because it would discriminate against the deaf and hearing-impaired.

The Bloomberg administration last year asked the judge, Robert W. Sweet of Federal District Court, to lift a 1996 injunction that blocked a similar attempt by the city to remove its existing street alarm boxes.

In its request, the city estimated that deactivation of the street-box system would save $6.3 million a year. It also argued that use of the boxes had declined substantially because of cellphones, and that about 85 percent of calls were false alarms. The city proposed an alternative of public pay phones combined with a tapping protocol that would allow deaf and hearing-impaired callers to signal whether they needed police or fire services.

But Judge Sweet, in a decision filed Monday, said that the number of pay phones had declined substantially, that they were not always well maintained, and that the tapping protocol had not been tested with the pay-phone system. "The injunction remains an equitable solution," he wrote.

A city lawyer, Jonathan Pines, said the city was disappointed that the court was requiring the Fire Department to maintain a street alarm box system "that has been all but abandoned by the public."

But Robert B. Stulberg, a lawyer for the advocacy group Civic Association of the Deaf of New York City and the class of deaf and hearing-impaired plaintiffs in the case, said the decision was "a momentous, life-saving ruling that protects the rights of the deaf and hearing-impaired to access essential public services."