People with hearing issues will notice a big improvement when they attend proceedings in Room 302 at the Grand Forks County Courthouse, thanks to newly installed technical equipment.

The courthouse is the first in North Dakota to be equipped with a "loop" technology that allows people with hearing impairment-whether they wear a hearing aid or not-to better hear proceedings.

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"I'm kind of a direct beneficiary of this technology, because I myself have hearing impairment and hearing aids," said Judge Don Hager, who presides over cases in this courtroom.

"So, for me, it's a Godsend every day to be able to sit in that loop system. It's a stark difference."

"I used to have to wear headsets to hear some of the attorneys, even with the microphone system."

When the judge and attorneys conduct sidebars, they whisper so jury members won't hear, he said. Hager said he needed a headset to hear attorneys whispering just two feet away.

The loop system won't help the sidebar situation, "but it will help everything else," Hager said.

When the new system recently was tested, Hager said the attorneys were "crystal clear."

"It's tremendous because it's taken away all the reverberation, it's taken away all the distance issues, it takes away the ambient noises in the background," he said.

Assistive hearing devices have been available for use in the county courtrooms for years, but this represents an improved level of quality.

The new headsets are much better, Hager said, "because the old ones just dealt with volume."

"It's really not the volume you deal with; it's that signal-to-noise ratio," he said.

With this system, "you're adjusting for high and low frequency loss," he said. "For example, I've got 95 percent hearing on the high frequency side, so it's almost like it's customized to you. It's like getting new ears for me. It's amazing."

With the loop system, "it's like somebody is talking into a mic right in front of them."

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, requires that accommodations be provided for those with hearing impairment, Hager said.

He initially raised awareness about the loop system, because he noticed how difficult it was for some people to hear in the courtroom, depending on where they sat.

"The more I sit in court, the more I see these issues, especially with the elderly," he said.

In the past, he realized some jurists with hearing loss were lip-reading.

"The concern was, how much did people hear?" he said. "You could tell by the way they strained."

Although he encourages jurists to raise their hands if they can't hear during a trial, some are reluctant to do so.

"In just about every jury trial (among written comments he received), I'd get at least one comment that somebody can't hear the attorneys," Hager said. "Now they won't have that issue."

The experience of jurists at a trial "is probably the most important part of this," he said. "To be able to hear every word is actually very important."

It's also crucial that witnesses hear properly, said Arne Johnson, lead installer and retired UND electrical engineering faculty member.

"It's so important that you, as a testifying witness, hear the question correctly, and not answer what you thought you heard," he said. "If you misunderstood the question, it could affect the outcome of the case."

Three zones

Installers of the system created three zones in the courtroom: where the attorneys and the public are seated, where the jury sits, and where the judge and witness sit.

A quarter-inch, flat copper wire is concealed under dark brown strips applied to the carpeting. Although it's usually installed under carpet, the wire was applied on top to save the expense of ripping up the carpet, Hager said.

"Each one of those loops is run through an amplifier that's hooked into the sound system to boost the signal up to five time more than what your hearing aids even have," he said. "So it makes (the sound) crystal clear in there."

The cost of installing the system, $9,600, came from the courthouse's facility budget. A local company, Modern Technology, installed it.

A sign posted on the courtroom door indicates that it's equipped with the loop technology.

"Those who have a hearing aid only have to switch on their telecoil," said Johnson. Others can access it by requesting earbuds or headphones.

The sound is much clearer, he said. "It's like they have a radio antenna right in their ear."

The system is designed to prevent any "spillage," Johnson said. "People in the next courtroom can't hear what's going on in this courtroom."

Old structures

Across the state, many courthouses are quite old. Interior building materials-lots of wood and "paper ceilings"-make hearing difficult, Hager said.

"You've got an old historic building and you can't do anything with it. The sound is pretty bad in those buildings; it's kind of like sitting in a can."

He is almost certain no other courthouse in the state has the technology, although it is available in courts in other parts of the country, he said.

"We're piloting the project," said Becky Absey, clerk of court.

Hager has talked with members of the North Dakota Supreme Court about the new system, he said, "and I'm pretty sure they're just waiting for our feedback."