¿Para Hablar o No Hablar?

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.

Language Line Services (LLS) began twenty-five years ago when a San Jose (CA) police officer recognized the need for quick and efficient language interpretation in emergency services. Dale Hansman, LLS Public Relations, states, "The officer got involved because he had just had enough night call outs and not being able to communicate with the person. Not knowing if the person was the perpetrator or the victim." In the beginning, Vietnamese was the first language the company interpreted, but currently Spanish is the number one language. Although LLS provides services to a number of different occupations, they realize the unique elements in emergency communications.

Danyune Gertsen, LLS Director of Training and Quality, explains their training department worked in collaboration with various California police departments to develop a one week 9-1-1 training which incorporates 9-1-1 call handling standards as well as interpretation protocol. All LLS employees attend this training, which emphasizes skills such as taking the lead in obtaining crucial information, relaying answers quickly, being succinct, and maintaining control. After training, the new interpreter is placed with a senior interpreter who provides monitoring, instruction, and guidance.

Due to the critical nature of 9-1-1 calls, a language service must have more than trained interpreters. They must provide a way for call centers to access an interpreter quickly. Understanding that need, LLS offers interpreters in one hundred seventy languages with an average wait time under fifteen seconds. For Spanish, the wait time is under five seconds. If wait times increase, measures are taken. "We have internal metrics which are monitored throughout the day. If a need is found, people would be scheduled immediately," Hansman states. Along with this internal monitoring, public safety interpretation requests are placed at the top of the queue.

Of course having an external contract for language services can be costly. In 2006, Phoenix Police paid nearly $633,000 to LLS. DeRuiter justifies this cost. "Language Line provides us with a large variety of languages a (bilingual) operator would not. We had 1, 265 requests for Somali...1,402 requests for Arabic, and 1,212 requests for Vietnamese. We had requests for 53 different languages, so you can see our need to retain a translation company." In regard to liability issues, LLS has a multi-million dollar insurance policy, including coverage for errors and omissions. To date, LLS has never been sued.

The ability to communicate is essential in emergency services. Someone could die. This someone might be a citizen, or it might be an officer. Also, bilingual communication is mandatory since the 2000 issuance of Executive Order 13166, requiring all federal agencies, and those funded by federal agencies, to take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access to their programs and activities for limited English proficiency (LEP) citizens. The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice is tasked with enforcing and helping implement the meaningful access required. Lewis sums up the communication issue, "As first responders, we are obligated to do everything we can to help out the people whom we are sworn to serve and protect. Learning the Spanish language is no different than any other type of required training. Emergency personnel are quite knowledgeable in many aspects of safety and preparedness. It would be an outrage to overlook such an important new facet of our duties."