Users of 911 find language to be a hurdle

Increased diversity has meant more calls from non-English speakers.
Tuesday, July 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:00 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Hispanic caller phoned 911 to report a fire at an apartment complex on Thursday, but what emergency personnel on the other end heard were strings of confusing, broken English. They knew the location of the caller but could not determine whether he had a police or fire emergency. Both departments were sent to the scene, said Donna Hargis, operations coordinator for joint communications.

When firefighters arrived they saw heavy smoke coming from the front window of the four-plex. However, they were able to determine that everyone in the building had escaped. Conversation with the occupants of the four-plex proved to be difficult, Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said.

“It wasn’t as easy as the conversation you and I are having right now,” Sapp said. “But we were able to get along and understand what they needed,” he said.

Nine people were displaced by Thursday’s fire. They have been temporarily relocated with local relatives.

That wasn’t the first time the Fire Department office has dealt with non-English-speaking callers.

Hargis said joint communications periodically handles those calls.

According to 2000 census data, Hispanics make up 1.9 percent of Boone County’s population, and Asians account for 3 percent. In 1990, the Hispanic population in Boone County accounted for 1.1 percent of the total population, while Asians represented 2.8 percent.

Because of the diversity, Hargis said her office and the fire and police departments generally know how to overcome the language barrier during emergencies.

Joint communications subscribes to AT&T’s Language Line service, which steps in as a third party to translate between the caller and personnel. Hargis said her office uses Language Line only when it has trouble understanding where someone is calling from or identifying his or her problem. Most of the time, if they are patient, emergency personnel struggle through the language barrier to get the necessary information and send the Fire Department or police to the location, she said. During Thursday’s call, joint communications deciphered the caller’s location, so Language Line was not used.

“Just by trying to communicate with people a little better, just by phrasing questions differently or asking them in a different manner, we can usually get all the information and keep the person calm,” Hargis said.

For the police department, difficulty with the language barrier isn’t something East District Commander Zim Schwartze said occurs every day, but it certainly happens more often now than it did 10 years ago. As Columbia continues to grow, the problem involves more than Spanish speakers, with people from many different countries coming to the area. The police department has several on-call bilingual officers who sometimes ease the frustration of deciphering other languages, she said. Relatives and other people in the area also act as good translators.

“It can be frustrating if we can’t understand them and they can’t understand us,” Schwartze said. “If they are under arrest and we have got them in handcuffs, we want to communicate to them what is going on, and they can get pretty upset and nervous as well.”

Sapp said once firefighters are on the scene, English-to-Spanish manuals are kept in their glove compartments. Also, there are several officers who can help translate.

He said each Fire Department shift has taken one basic Spanish-for-emergency-responders class and will take more in the fall. Each class covers the most basic terms used to name emergencies and establish a rapport with non-English speakers, Sapp said. Their inflection isn’t perfect and their pronunciation is awkward, but firefighters usually get their point across, he said.

The problem comes when trying to translate informative flyers or bulletins to many different languages, said Sapp, who described Columbia’s language diversity as a “double-edged sword.”

“It would be interesting to look at demographics to say whether we need to continue training our firefighters to speak more languages or whether more needs to be done in the community to teach English as a second language,” he said.

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