911 translation service benefits NC counties

A dispatcher simply presses a button when someone doesn't speak English to get a translator on the other end of the line

By Adam Wagner

WILMINGTON, N.C. — When someone calls local 911 and can't speak English, help is literally one button away.

Nestled in the corner of dispatchers' screens, among buttons that say EMS, Fire, School and Law, is one that says "Language." All the dispatcher needs to do when someone who doesn't speak English calls is click that button and a translator is on the other end of the line because of a service called LanguageLine.

Used in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, LanguageLine connects a dispatcher with someone who, if necessary, can determine what language is being spoken and from there transfer the call to a translator.

Deborah Cottle, New Hanover County's 911 manager, said the county uses the service nearly every day.

"It is very easy," Cottle said.

The service is overwhelmingly used for Spanish callers in both counties, officials said.

In September, for instance, New Hanover used the service 54 times for Spanish speakers. Other languages included one call each of French, Japanese and Korean. That kind of breakdown is typical for the last year, according to data provided by New Hanover County Emergency Management, with non-Spanish languages rarely having more than one call in a month.

According to the county's agreement with LanguageLine, Spanish translation costs $1.39 per minute, while translation of any other language costs $1.66. If the original caller has to be called by LanguageLine and a dispatcher because of a hang-up, that call costs the county $6.

In September, New Hanover spent $541.44 on the service. Brunswick, meanwhile, averages about $250 per month, a figure that bumps up to $350 to $400 during summer months.

Spanish's status as the most common non-English language isn't surprising. According to U.S. Census data, nearly 9,000 people spoke Spanish in New Hanover County and about 4,800 spoke it in Brunswick. The second-most-common non-English language in New Hanover was French with 743 speakers, and German took second place in Brunswick with 287 speakers.

While the translation service is easy to use for dispatchers and provides some level of understanding, some say it doesn't present a perfect solution for non-English speakers.

"The Spanish-speaking community that doesn't know any English is happy to have some type of service in place and they are hoping the person on the other end does speak both languages fluently," said Lucy Vasquez, senior executive of Amigos international in Wilmington. "But on my end, where I do speak both languages fluently, I have heard some of these services and they are not fully bilingual."

Particularly problematic are the different dialects of Spanish, Vasquez added, as a word in one Spanish-speaking country may have an entirely different meaning than that in another depending on how it is said.

"It's not the best way to go, but if you have nothing else, then try it," Vasquez said.

Often, Spanish speakers will have a child or someone else who speaks English serve as a translator. When that is not available, though, New Hanover County has a policy in place saying help will be sent as soon as the dispatcher realizes the caller doesn't speak English.

Part of the reason for that policy, said Karen Benton, an assistant supervisor in the 911 Center, is that the translation does mean a small delay. Dispatchers can always update a call, but shaving seconds off of a response time can be crucial during emergency situation.

For that help to be sent, though, it is important that non-English speakers dial 911 instead of a non-emergency number. Any time a caller dials 911 from a land line, dispatchers can see exactly where they are. If it is from a cell phone, they can see a general location.

"Any time they need police or EMS, if they dial 911 we can get a good hit on their location," Benton said.


©2014 the Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.)

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