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What Happens When 911 Callers Don't Speak English?

Tom Banse
Dispatch supervisor Brenda Faxon and director Mark Buchholz in the Willamette Valley 911 Communications Center in Salem.

In an emergency, the last thing you want to hear is, "I can't understand you." The reality is emergency dispatchers in the Northwest generally speak one language, English. But in our increasingly polyglot society, some people in distress inevitably can't communicate in English.

So what happens then?

An emergency call in a foreign language is an almost daily occurrence in the region's urban counties. Every 911 center in Northwest has a contract with an emergency translation service to deal with this.

But it takes extra time. The caller might even hear hold music, as if it were a catalogue company rather than an emergency call.

Veteran call taker and training manager Andrea Tobin admits the wait for an interpreter to join the call can be excruciating, although you can't hear it in the dispatcher's voice.

"We get pretty tense, especially if we know it is a medical call or this [is a] person that is in obvious distress,” she said. “When it is Spanish, it is pretty quick and easy for us to [recognize]. When it is a different dialect, it becomes more complicated for us because we don't recognize them all. And then they put us on hold while they get an interpreter for the language that we need. That can sometimes be very quick. Sometimes it is 30 seconds or a minute.”

Translation Firms Vs. Bilingual Operators

Translation companies such as Portland-based Telelanguage and California-based LanguageLine boast they have interpreters for 200 languages available. Willamette Valley 911 director Mark Buchholz says the services bill the government by the minute.

"We pay for those services as we use them,” he said. “So if we only use two calls a day, we pay for that service rather than if I were to have an entire staff with every language available. That expense would be beyond our ability to fund."

Buchholz says three of the 55 people on his staff who answer calls are certified bilingual — two in Spanish, one in Russian.

In the Northwest, Spanish is by far the most common requested language for emergency translation, typically followed by Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese, in varying order. Lately, call center supervisors in Boise and Seattle say they're seeing African and Middle Eastern languages crop up,  perhaps a consequence of refugee inflows. The Washington State Enhanced 911 Coordination Office credits Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties with being especially active in trying to hire bilingual call takers.

Buchholz says centers like his actively recruit for bilingual call takers, but they're hard to find.

"It's really tough to require a second language as a requirement to work for us,” he said. “While it is important — we do pay a bonus — the volume isn't significant enough for us to have that as an exclusive requirement for hiring.”

Interpreters on the calls may be located halfway across the country. The companies they work for advertise this as a rewarding job that can be done from home. The same companies also translate for business call centers, banks, schools and courts.

A Lengthy Translation Process

Consider an example from the Willamette Valley 911 Center in Salem, Oregon. After determining that the caller only spoke Spanish, the dispatcher clicked a speed-dial button to conference in an interpreter.

The call router from the translation service asked which language the dispatcher needed interpreted and then tracked down the appropriate interpreter.

It took 55 precious seconds of waiting for the interpreter to come on the line. Then every question from the emergency call taker was posed in English, translated into Spanish, answered in Spanish by the caller in distress, then translated back into English. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until three minutes into the call before the nature of the emergency became clear.

The caller, who was panting and sounded like he was running, said two men in a car were chasing him, possibly from the hospital. The call taker and interpreter went several more rounds, trying to figure where it was happening. It took the trio another minute to figure out the exact intersection after a misunderstanding about “one way” not being an identifiable cross street.

A squad car rolled up to the scene and took over before the call taker and interpreter could get through the standard questions. This didn't end so well for the caller. Guadalupe Salazar was subsequently arrested for misuse of 911. The police report indicates he showed signs of paranoia and methamphetamine use. No one was seen chasing him. Only hours before, Salazar had been referred to the local hospital for evaluation. After reviewing the case, the Marion County district attorney's office chose not to press charges.

Some county 911 centers do outreach to non-English speaking communities. Foreign language speakers should know, "If you need help, call. We'll figure out how to communicate. We'll help you through the call," said Amy Burrage, a 911 floor supervisor in King County, Washington.

A piece of universal advice shared by several supervisors is to know how to say the name of your country and/or your native tongue in the local language wherever you go.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.