Ky. counties rely on 911 translation services as diversity increases

Officials say they are seeing more emergency calls in Spanish and Burmese, and that translation services can interpret up to 150 different languages


James Mayse
Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.

OWENSBORO, Ky. — As Owensboro and Daviess County have become home to more diverse populations, the city-county 911 dispatch center has also seen an increase in the diversity of languages they are hearing on emergency calls.

While Spanish and Burmese are the foreign languages that dispatchers come in contact with the most, a variety of other languages are being heard on 911 calls. According to the dispatch center’s records, between January and October, dispatchers received calls in Portuguese, Rohingya, Russian, Somali, Swahili, Thai and Vietnamese, in addition to other languages spoken in Myanmar besides Burmese.

“The diversity of our county has changed and impacted the way we do business,” said Paul Nave, the dispatch center’s director. “The (purpose) of our occupation is getting help to everyone who calls … With that being said, there’s an obstacle, a huge obstacle, trying to understand someone who doesn’t speak English.”

Officials with the Owensboro Police Department and the Daviess County Sheriff’s Department said they also encounter individuals who can’t speak English during calls for service. OPD has a few officers who speak Spanish, but both agencies use the same translator services that dispatchers use when handling foreign language 911 calls.

“I have used it several times and it worked very good,” said Lt. Scott Wedding. “It’s a slow process. It’s probably three times slower than the average call you take.”

Nave said the dispatch center has two translation services it can use. When a call comes into the dispatcher in a foreign language, the dispatcher presses a button to connect with a translator, Nave said.

It’s not uncommon for people who have learned English as a second language to revert to their native language when calling 911, Nave said.

“Even if you can speak some English, when you’re stressed, you revert … because you’re comfortable with that language.”

The translator services can interpret 150 languages, Nave said. Dispatch takes 911 calls from children of non-English speakers because the children can translate for their parents.

“Sometimes we’ll still get the translator on the phone if we feel the child needs to be taken out of the equation,” Nave said.

Officers in the field on calls with non-English speakers will connect to the translator service through dispatch, with the translator listening over the officer’s phone, Nave said.

Officer Andrew Boggess, public information officer for ODP, said the department will send an officer who speaks Spanish to assist on a call for service if one of its Spanish speakers is on duty but will otherwise use the language line.

Having a few Spanish speakers on the department “is a much easier resource, depending on the shift” than using the language line, Boggess said. OPD officers encounter people who don’t speak English on calls “fairly regularly,” he said.

“For what it is, it works well,” Boggess said.

Wedding said the sheriff’s office would rather use the language line than rely on an English speaker on site during a call because the language line is more reliable for officers.

“In the past, before we had (the service) we had to use neighbors or family” who could translate, Wedding said. But when a neighbor or relative would translate “we didn’t know … if the correct word was being shared.” In those cases, “you’re hoping the exact wordage is being communicated,” he said.

“With (the translator service), you’re dealing with professionals,” Wedding said.

The sheriff’s office encounters people who don’t speak English regularly, either in the county or when serving court papers in the city.

Nave said: “there’s an inherent delay” in using the translator service. “There’s the time to get the translator on the phone” and then for the translator and dispatcher to go back and forth asking questions and relaying information.

“We can’t send anyone until we know their location and what their emergency is,” Nave said. But the service has worked well for dispatch.

The translators “are trained in getting the information we need,” Nave said. “They are trained in relaying that information and relaying it to the caller. It takes a special person to be a dispatcher, and it takes a special person to hear a person in a life-or-death situation.”

Nave said he anticipates dispatch will rely more on the translator services in the future.

“The language diversity is only going to increase as time goes on, based on what is occurring today.”

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©2019 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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