What Happens When Callers To 911 Speak No English?

Aug 18, 2014

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. Correspondent Tom Banse takes us inside a 911 call center to find out what happens then.

The emergency call you're about to hear came in to the Willamette Valley 911 Center in Salem, Oregon. But it could've been almost anywhere in the West. A call in a foreign language is a daily - or almost daily - occurrence in this region's urban counties.

Dispatch supervisor Brenda Faxon and director Mark Buchholz in the Willamette Valley 9-1-1 Communications Center in Salem.
Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

Sound: [call starts]:

Dispatcher: "911"

Caller: [indistinct]

Dispatcher: "Do you have an emergency?"

Caller: [mumble - "Español?"]

Dispatcher: "Do you have an emergency?

Caller: "Si!"

Dispatcher: "OK. Just a moment..."

At this point the dispatcher clicks a speed dial button to conference in an interpreter. Every 911 center in Northwest has a contract with an emergency translation service like this.

TeleLanguage call router; "Thanks for calling. What language?"

WVCC call taker: "Spanish."

Call router: "One moment please."

Computer voice: "Thank you. Your call may be monitored or recorded for quality..."

On this call, it takes 55 precious seconds for the translator to come on the line.

Recording: "Thank you for holding, we will be with you shortly."

Veteran call taker and training manager Andrea Tobin says the wait can be excruciating, though you can't hear it in the dispatcher's voice.

Andrea Tobin: "We get pretty tense, especially if we know it is a medical call - or this person that is in obvious distress."

We listen back to the call at Tobin's desk.

Tom Banse: "This is where I was a little startled. It sounds like I'm calling a catalogue company a little bit. I know it's not."

Tobin: "When it is Spanish it is pretty quick and easy for us to understand. 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."

Translator: "Hi, my name is Luz. My ID is..."

Translation companies such as Telelanguage and LanguageLine boast they have interpreters for 200 languages available.

Willamette Valley 911 director Mark Buchholz says they bill the government by the minute.

Buchholz: "We pay for those services as we use them. 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 our region, 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, a consequence of refugee inflows perhaps.

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

Buchholz: "It's really tough to require a second language as a requirement to work for us. 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."

At the Salem 911 center, it's three minutes into the call from the running man. He says two men in a car are chasing him, possibly from the hospital. The call taker and interpreter go several rounds with the guy trying to figure where this is happening.

Caller: [something in Spanish]

Interpreter: "Lee Street y One Way?"

Caller: "Yeah."

Interpreter: "I am standing right at the corner of One Way and Lee Street."

Dispatcher: "We don't have a One Way."

It took the trio another minute to figure out the intersection was actually Lee and 12th.

Interpreters who join calls like this 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.

In the case of our Salem emergency, a squad car rolls up to the scene before the call taker and interpreter get through the standard questions.

Sound: [call finishes with handoff to on-scene officer]

Dispatcher "Do you see the officers?"

Interpreter: [Translation]

Caller: yes

Dispatcher: "Can you talk to them?"

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 intoxication. No one was seen chasing him. Salazar was referred to a mental evaluation. After reviewing the case, the District Attorney chose not to press charges.

However, the district attorney chose not to pursue the case.

Some county 9-1-1 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 King County (Washington) 9-1-1 floor supervisor.

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.

The Washington State Enhanced 911 Coordination Office credits Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties with being especially active in trying to hire bilingual call takers.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network