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Answering The Call For Help In All Languages

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

Nobody wants to find themselves calling 9-1-1.

The number is drilled into us from elementary school, always with the caveat to only use it in an emergency. But have you ever wondered what would happen if you had to call emergency services in a foreign country? What if you were deaf? How would you communicate with the person on the other end of the line?

According to the IJIS Institute, “phone usage data shows that around 90% of non-English 911 calls were conducted in Spanish, with other non-English calls spread out among 150 other languages”. Someone who doesn’t speak English may hear hold music while the dispatcher searches for an interpreter. This causes delays in getting help quickly, especially if the dispatcher is unable to correctly identify the language or dialect.

According to Census data, 61 million people nationwide speak a language other than English at home. Municipalities must decide if it is better to hire bilingual operators or to work with corporate companies like LanguageLine, TeleLanguage, and CyraCom. In the case of the deaf, a teleprinter needs to be provided. Obviously, the current state of affairs is not ideal and is in desperate need of improvement.

90% of non-English 911 calls are conducted in Spanish, with other non-English calls spread out among 150 other languages.

One way to ensure everyone lives in a safe community is to expand the current capacities and capabilities of the current 9-1-1 system. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Communications Commission has been working with municipalities to implement text-to-911 services. Presidential candidate Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), even introduced S1479, the Next Generation 9-1-1 Act of 2019. The act would mandate that emergency services be able to receive texts and multimedia messages.

Expanding the technical capabilities of the 9-1-1 service would do wonders for people who are disabled and/or have difficulties with English. Implementing a new nationwide emergency system poses a lot of technical questions, how to make sure it can handle a surge in communication in the case of a large-scale event.

Examples from the States

New York City has missed its rollout deadline due to technical complications. Predictably, another stumbling block has been creating a solution for receiving texts in other languages to ensure equal access for everyone.

According to the IJIS Institute, “In many circumstances, not long after PSAPs [public safety access points] implement Text-to-911, they begin to receive non-English texts. The public safety community has identified a need for Text-to-911 translation.”

However, municipalities, like Palm Beach County in Florida, saw huge delays as officials figured out how to deal with the instant translation demand that was created. The Florida Sun Sentinel pointed out Broward County had turned to Google Translate to work with foreign language texts. According to Chuck Spalding, Palm Beach County’s NextGen 911 program manager, said that “Palm Beach County dispatchers can hear up to 20 different languages in a given month”.

Texting could end up being incredibly beneficial for LEP individuals, especially those not comfortable speaking English over the phone. This month, the Sioux City metro area in Iowa successfully launched a text-to-911 program. Resident Carol Hestbech stated, "I know my speech is not that good, and I rely on texts." Authorities caution that text services may be slower and have recommended to “call if you can, but text if you must.”

The DHS has stated, “Language Service Providers must develop an entirely new service to ensure that rapid, reliable and secure translation of texts between a 911 operator and a texter is commercially available.” While S1479 mandates texts and multimedia communications be accepted by 911 dispatch centers, it falls short of addressing these language concerns. The DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate is currently working with two major non-profit public safety associations (Integrated Justice Information Systems and Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies) and CyraCom (an industry-leading language service provider) to develop and test a solution to the language question.

We need to do everything we can to create a safe society for all citizens, including a concerted effort by the language services, technology, and telecommunications industries to help the government address this concern. Currently, the technology that is so sorely needed, is still best exemplified by Sato’s universal translator in Star Trek.

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