Ky. fire dept. bridges gap between first responders and refugees
Owensboro Fire Department Capt. James Howard has worked with his colleagues to meet face-to-face with refugee communities to develop critical relationships
By Austin Ramsey
OWENSBORO, Ky. — More than three years ago now, Capt. James Howard of the Owensboro Fire Department and his engine company responded to a medical call that, on its surface, wasn't all that different from any other.
The call was about a pregnant woman who was experiencing complications, but when the firefighter-medical technicians arrived, they discovered the woman was a Burmese refugee—one of thousands in the Owensboro area.
"We were far from being able to understand her," Howard said, "and she was far from being able to understand us as EMTs trying to assess her and her problems."
An ambulance transported her to the hospital, but, to this day, he said he doesn't know what happened with the woman nor her unborn child. He was never able to determine what she needed at that moment, and the experience has stayed with him ever since.
At that moment Howard's own wife was pregnant with their own daughter, now 3 years old, and the language and cultural gap present that day made the experience deeply personal for him, he said.
"I thought about what would happen if my wife and I had really needed that kind of help and the only people who could give us help couldn't understand a word we said and vice versa," he said. "I had it in the back of my mind that I'd like to have a vehicle to be able to do something about that."
This week, the Owensboro Fire Department and the International Center of Kentucky announced a partnership aimed at addressing the gap between first responders and the city's refugee population.
Howard, who tackled the project as part of a capstone initative in a firefighter leadership class, has worked with his colleagues to meet face-to-face with refugee communities. He said he is using those opportunities to not only teach basic fire safety and emergency medical curricula but to listen to the concerns refugees have and develop relationships that could become critical in times of need.
He worked alongside the international center's targeted assistance coordinator Susanne Bartlett, who helped raise awareness among the city's refugee groups and solicit questions that could be answered ahead of time. With experience, Howard and Bartlett say they've learned that the most successful meetings take place at people's homes where participants sit alongside firefighters on couches or even the floor and discuss safety measures as friends and equals.
The best translators, in fact, have proven to be refugees' children, who are learning or have learned English in local public schools. Fire department personnel take opportunities to let many of those children see and touch fire trucks or firefighters in field apparatus in order to eliminate any fear of the unknown.
"We have to make sure people in these communities aren't too scared to call 9-1-1," she said. "They shouldn't be afraid of sirens. Most of these people come from countries whose government or safety personnel have not always been the best to them. That's why they're refugees, and it's difficult to just plop them down in a new country and expect them to know this."
Bartlett has worked along the Owensboro Police Department as recently as 2016 to help spread a crime prevention and public safety message among refugees, too.
Because of recent federal bans on refugees from certain countries identified by the Donald Trump administration as potential harborers of terrorists, many of Owensboro's Somali refugees have moved to larger communities in expectation that their status as temporary residents may soon change.
About 99 percent of the city's current refugees are Burmese, Bartlett said.
The partnership project, which is slated to produce even more meetings is just another example of the types of initiatives Fire Chief Steve Mitchell said his department has been trying to undertake this fiscal year to refocus on fire prevention efforts.
"We embrace the diversity of our community, and we want to make sure that our safety message is getting across to our community as a whole," he said. "When we reviewed our programs, we thought we could strengthen our relationship with the refugee communities. We wanted to make sure that we understand their cultures and how they receive messages so we know how to get those messages to them in ways they can understand them."
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