¿Para Hablar o No Hablar?

If you can't communicate with your callers, how can you guarantee the safety of the citizen or your officers?

You just picked up a burger from your favorite drive-thru. You bite in. Suddenly, the burger refuses to slide down your throat. Gasping, you start to choke. Clutching your neck, you push your car door open. Frantic, you get the attention of a man standing beside his car. Seeing your scarlet face, he understands. He dials 9-1-1. The operator answers and he says ¡Un hombre está estrangulando!

The U.S. Census Bureau states around 47 million American residents speak a language other than English. That's around 18 percent of the population. In areas with a higher concentration of foreign-born citizens, the percentage is closer to 26 percent. Of the 1.2 million people in Arizona who speak a language other than English, 75 percent speak Spanish. Although many of them are bilingual, approximately 47 percent state they speak English "less than 'very well.'" According to these statistics, if you have an emergency, the person trying to get you help may not speak English. Your life depends on the operator's ability to communicate.

Numerous debates about language have been argued from the squad room to the Supreme Court. Arizona is one of many states which faced court battles regarding the constitutionality of English-only legislation. In Ruiz v. Hull, the Arizona Supreme Court unanimously ruled Art. XXVIII of the Arizona Constitution violated citizen's rights. This article stated English was the official language and all government employees doing government business must "act" only in English. The Court stated the Amendment "adversely impacts the constitutional rights of non-English-speaking persons with regards to their obtaining access to their government." Other states, including Alaska, Utah, and California have faced similar judicial decisions.

Like many demographic debates, strong opinions exist. Many English-only supporters believe America should have one official language, and non-English speakers will assimilate into American society more easily if they speak the predominate language. On the other hand, English-only opponents believe requiring an official language dilutes cultural identity. Regardless, emergency service providers can not pick sides. When a person needs help, they must be able to communicate with first responders. Due to this, many communication centers utilize two systems of bilingual communication: certified bilingual operators and telephone interpretation.

Many public safety employees are bilingual. These operators often teach other operators crucial phrases. The ability to tell a limited English proficiency (LEP) caller to please hold for an interpreter may make the difference between the caller hanging up, believing they will not be understood, and staying on the line to get the help they need. Even with this help, operators often decide they want to increase their proficiency. Brady Lewis, founder of Spanish4Emergencies, states, "A dispatcher who cannot communicate with the person on the other end of the line will likely be unable to gather an address, name, description or even the nature of the call. How can a responder be properly prepared without having any information?" Like many companies, Lewis' focuses on learning language for specific purposes (LSP). The Georgia Public Training Safety Center also hosts a 3-day class in survival Spanish, open to officers and dispatchers. With the myriad of language-learning materials available, emergency communications operators have many opportunities to become multi-lingual.

In spite of opportunities, only around 25 of the almost 200 Phoenix communications operators are certified. To become certified, the operator must pass a test given through the Phoenix Language Education and Diversity Sensitivity (LEADS) Division. Certified operators receive $50 per month compensation. Even with this certification opportunity, Phoenix's Communications Manager, Tami deRuiter states, "While it would be wonderful if we could employ enough employees to handle our language needs, we find it difficult to find enough prospective employees to hire when we are just looking for English." Issues such as these require an option other than bilingual employees.

This content continues onto the next page...
  • Enhance your experience.

    Thank you for your regular readership of and visits to Officer.com. To continue viewing content on this site, please take a few moments to fill out the form below and register on this website.

    Registration is required to help ensure your access to featured content, and to maintain control of access to content that may be sensitive in nature to law enforcement.