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How Northwest Emergency Dispatchers Get Help To 911 Callers Who Don't Speak English

Tom Banse
Northwest News Network

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.

A recent emergency call came in to the Willamette Valley 911 Center in Salem, Oregon where the caller didn't speak the same language as the dispatcher. This call could have happened anywhere in the West. A call in a foreign language is a near-daily occurrence in this region's urban counties.

Once the Oregon dispatcher realized she couldn't communicate with the caller, she 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.

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

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.

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

We listen back to the call at Tobin's desk. The hold music makes it almost sound like you're calling a catalog company.

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

"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," Buchholz says. "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 commonly-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.

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 says. "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 now three minutes into the call from the Spanish-speaking 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.

It took the trio another minute to figure out where he was. 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.

This didn't end so well for the caller. Guadalupe Salazar was subsequently arrested. Salem Police say it was for misuse of 911.

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," says Amy Burrage, a King County, Wash. 911 floor supervisor.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers business, environment, public policy, human interest and national news across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be heard during "Morning Edition," "Weekday," and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.