Written by Greg Holt, Government Markets Manager of Language Line Services in Monterey, CA. Provides language solutions to 911 centers, ambulance, police and other local and regional first responders.
We all know that a catastrophic technology failure can bring emergency communications to a grinding halt. 911 professionals have trained for this possibility. Managers have developed redundant systems and specific protocols to guard against the potential effects of a digital glitch. As a result, in municipalities across the country, every possible step has been taken to keep communications between callers, dispatchers and first responders on track and in order.
But there is another kind of catastrophic communications failure that is more prevalent and, in many cases, less understood. The failure in question is language. It results from the fact that our nation is becoming more and more linguistically diverse every day. As emergency communications professionals know from first-hand experience, the number of limited-English proficient (LEP) callers is on the rise, and population data suggest that - in both large urban areas and small rural outposts - this number will increase even more rapidly in the years ahead.
Like technology malfunctions, language issues can interrupt calls, delay responses and create confusion. Recognizing the linguistic gap, emergency communications managers have made great strides in implementing procedures to quickly handle LEP calls. Some municipalities have increased the number of bilingual dispatchers that they hire. Many offer "survival-level" language training for dispatchers. Recognizing that more than 176 languages are now spoken in the U.S., many agencies have prepared for the unexpected and have contracted with telephone interpretation services that can quickly connect dispatchers with professional interpreters in virtually any language. However, while progress has been made, few standards exist for processing LEP calls and, in some cases, cross-cultural training for dispatchers who must work with language interpreters in limited or lacking.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires organizations that receive federal funds, like 911 centers, provide "meaningful access" to services, regardless of language spoken. How this plays out locally is the result of local demographics as well as budgets. Bilingual staffing plays a key role. However, it is a challenge with the increase in linguistic diversity. In situations where a professional interpreter is available, there are some basic steps that dispatchers can take to keep calls running smoothly in any language.
Background: Understanding Language Diversity
According to U.S. census data, more than 47 million people in the U.S. speak a language other than English at home, and nearly 24 million are LEP. The number of foreign-born individuals in the country has now reached an all-time high of 38.1 million, according to the Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey. It has also predicted that minorities will comprise the majority of the country's population by 2042, with the demographic shift being driven by greater diversity and increases in immigration.
Population and language changes are not just impacting the largest urban areas. Cities and towns across the country are becoming increasingly diverse, and emergency dispatch centers are helping callers who speak languages that might have been considered rare only a few years ago. For example, in Arlington, VA, there is a need for Krio interpreters; Krio is the language of Sierra Leone, Africa. Denver needs Karen speakers; Karen is spoken in Thailand. In Seattle, interpreters are needed for Oromo, a language of Ethiopia. In Phoenix, Dari is spoken; Dari is a language of Iran.
Tips: Working with an Interpreter
As the numbers clearly demonstrate, 911 centers can expect more calls in a wider array of languages. As a result, it is increasingly likely that dispatchers will be working with professional interpreters in the days and years ahead. Professional interpreters trained in the procedures of 911 calls can be available immediately, via the phone, in most languages or dialects spoken in the U.S.
Interpreters can be a vital bridge between the caller and the dispatcher. They do not work alone or handle emergency calls by themselves. Instead, language interpretation is a three-way conversation between the dispatcher, the caller and the interpreter, where the interpreter becomes a critical part of your team.
When working with a telephone interpretation service, call takers can make every call more effective by following a few important tips:
- Brief the interpreter - Identify the name of your organization. Give clear instructions. Also, be specific about what information you need or what needs to be done. "What is your address?", "Is this an emergency?"
- Speak directly to the caller - Communicate directly with caller, not the interpreter. Rather than saying,, "Tell him to give you his address," say "What is your address?" The interpreter will relay the information and then communicate the caller's response directly back to you, ensuring a smoother call flow, and saving critical time.
- Group your thoughts - Speak in short sentences. Your interpreter is trying to understand the meaning of what you are saying, so express whole thoughts, if possible. Interpreters may ask you to slow down or repeat. Pause to make sure you give the interpreter time to deliver your message.
- Offer clarifications - If something is unclear, or if the interpreter is given a long statement, the interpreter may ask you to repeat or clarify your statement.
- Ask if the LEP person understands - Do not automatically assume that the LEP caller understands the interpretation. In some cultures a person may say "yes", not because they understand but rather so they can try and follow the conversation. Also, keep in mind that a lack of English skill does not necessarily equate to a lack of education.
- Do not ask for the interpreter's opinion - The interpreter's job is to convey the meaning of what is said - not to inject personal opinion. Do not ask the interpreter questions (i.e. "Is the caller intoxicated?"). Rather, ask the caller directly if he or she has been drinking.
- Avoid side conversations - Whatever the interpreter hears will be interpreted. If you feel that the interpreter has not interpreted everything, ask the interpreter to do so. Avoid interrupting the interpreter.
- Avoid jargon or technical terms - To facilitate the interpretation, use simple English. Classify unique vocabulary, and provide examples if they are needed to explain a term (i.e. HAZMAT, EMS, etc.)
- Expect longer conversations - An interpreted conversation may take longer, compared with an English conversaton. Many concepts have no equivalent in other languages. The interpreter may have to describe or paraphrase. It is important to avoid interrupting the interpreter while he or she is interpreting.
- Dealing with incoherent callers - If the LEP caller is incoherent, the interpreter may not be able to convey the caller's message. The interpreter may resort to rendering the exact words heard, although the words may not be part of a cohesive message (i.e. simply "knife," "weapon," "wound," etc.)
- Work around cultural issues - Professional interpreters understand differences of culture and customs. An interpreter may clarify cultural issues for you. If a particular question is culturally inappropriate, the interpreter may suggest that you rephrase the question or ask in a more appropriate way.
- Closing of the call - The interpreter will wait for you to end the call. When appropriate, the interpreter will offer further assistance. Remember to thank the interpreter for his or her efforts at the end of the session.
Preparing for the Challenge
Today, there is a growing chance that when a call comes into an emergency center, it will be in a language other than English. Population statistics, and the trends that drive them, say a great deal about how our nation's linguistic makeup is changing. With this in mind, emergency communications managers are taking steps to make language proficiency a priority. Those on the front lines, including dispatchers and first responders, must also take steps to prepare for the language challenge. Learning how to work with interpreters, and understanding as much as possible about the cultural issues attached to various languages, are important first steps.
Professionals who work in the interpretation field are also moving to make the partnership between emergency services personnel and language experts as successful as possible. A solid interpretation organization that supports emergency services agencies has staff trained to understand the priorities and procedures of this vital service. Like the emergency center itself, the best interpretation services have a comprehensive disaster recovery plan that is regularly tested, independently verified by authorized key third parties, and consistently updated - so access to interpreters is there when you need it, under all conditions. In the end, a tigher working relationship between emergency officials and interpreters will result in greater efficiencies for call takers and improved public safety for everyone.