FREDERICK, Md. -- From age 3, when he remembers watching the TV show "Cops" at his grandmother's house, Robert Harris has been fascinated with police work.
This spring, as the Frederick Police Department's first deaf student intern, the 17-year-old has proven himself more than an eager learner. He has also been a teacher to the officers, firefighters and rescue workers he's met.
Having opened their eyes to deaf culture, Harris is now designing a visual communication tool to help first responders interact with hearing-impaired people and non-English speakers in Frederick, home to the Maryland School for the Deaf.
School superintendent James E. Tucker, immediate past president of the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf and a board member, said he knows of no other such program in the nation.
Harris' contributions have exceeded police chief Kim C. Dine's expectations for an internship program that was designed to strengthen connections between police and the deaf community. There are at least 2,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing residents in Frederick County, including 340 MSD students, school officials say.
"We didn't know what a wonderful person we were getting," Dine said. "He's very patient with us, he's very smart and he's very excited, so he has energized us and our training staff."
Harris, who was born deaf, radiates enthusiasm, which is obvious in the photos he proudly shows of a police training exercise in which he played the role of an uncooperative subject for a class of recruits.
Harris, an Eagle Scout who graduated from MSD with a 3.0-plus grade point average, said he enjoyed playing a troublemaker.
"I've never been arrested, so it was neat to have the experience of being cuffed in the back and realizing, 'Wow, it really is hard to communicate,'" he said through an interpreter.
Harris, who also teaches introductory American Sign Language classes, showed the officers how to sign a few basic phrases including "Good morning," "Good evening" and "ticket." He also taught them to look directly at the deaf person they're talking to and not at the sign-language interpreter.
Interpreters aren't usually present in the first stages of an arrest or emergency, though, so many police officers and EMTs carry commercially available visual aids. Among the most common are pocket-sized, laminated cards that fold out to reveal brightly colored drawings that allow a user, by pointing, to communicate nationality, physical characteristics, injuries or complaint.
Based on his interviews with local emergency services leaders, Harris is devising a different kind of pocket communicator. It will be a tabbed flip chart with fewer, but larger, images conveying basic information that police, firefighters and EMTs need immediately.
The fold-out Law Enforcement Visual Language Translator, published by Kwikpoint/GAIA LLC of Alexandria, Va., lacks symbols to help medical personnel.
By contrast, Harris said, "The one that we're working on now is going to have bigger images, easier to point to. It's going to be more related to not only police but also related to firemen. We will have a house diagram, a diagram of a body so you can show where you're injured or hurt or if you had a heart attack -- things of that nature."
He said existing products include those that will be discussed with an interpreter present. "What we are focusing more on are things you need NOW."
Kwikpoint offers a separate Medical Visual Language Translator filled with images that convey symptoms, and it is designing a version for firefighters, said Scott Whitney, vice president of sales and business development.
Harris aims to finish his chart this month before leaving his Middletown home for the Rochester Institute of Technology to study criminal justice and computer graphics.
Dine said the flip chart, and the deaf internship program, could be replicated by other police and emergency services agencies around the country.
He said communication is sometimes the biggest obstacle between police and those most in need of their services.
"I frankly think that through this partnership, we are a better police department," Dine said.
On the Net:
Frederick Police Department: http://www.cityoffrederick.com/departmen...
Maryland School for the Deaf: http://www.msd.edu