Access to a variety of languages helps emergency operators - East Valley Tribune: News

Access to a variety of languages helps emergency operators

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Posted: Sunday, February 9, 2003 10:53 pm | Updated: 1:47 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

"Un momento, por favor. No cuelgue." Whenever 911 operator Joel Tiffany hears that phrase, he knows he is about to spring into action.

As one of Mesa's handful of Spanish-speaking emergency call takers, he is often asked by his co-workers to assist someone in need who doesn't speak English.

"One moment, please. Don't hang up," is often Tiffany's cue that someone who speaks Spanish needs assistance.

But if Tiffany or another Spanish speaker isn't available to handle the call, help is never far away.

Mesa pays between $8,000 and $10,000 per month to Language Line, a northern California-based company that provides interpretation services to 15,000 emergency service agencies across the United States.

Chandler, Gilbert, Scottsdale and Paradise Valley also subscribe to Language Line. The service is crucial, Tiffany said.

"Can you imagine it? Not only is your baby not breathing, but no one is available to speak to you in your native language?" Tiffany asked.

The way it works is this: If a non-English-speaking person calls 911, call takers either send the call to a co-worker who speaks the language or they call Language Line.

Working with the Language Line representative, the call taker gets the information he or she needs and relays it to a fire or police dispatcher.

Language Line also can be used by officers in the field, Tiffany said.

Last year, more than 49,000 calls in 26 languages were interpreted by Language Line for Mesa alone.

Cheryl Allen, a Scottsdale communications supervisor, said the program is crucial.

"They translate every language and every dialect, with the exception of some Native American languages. That's huge, especially in a city like Scottsdale, with its tourist population, many of whom come from different countries," Allen said.

Evin Ollinger, director of marketing for Language Line, said his company went from interpreting on a volunteer basis for San Jose, Calif., in 1982 to interpreting for 90 percent of the nation's emergency service providers.

In 1982, the company had 10 employees speaking Vietnamese and Spanish. Now the company employs 1,500 in the United States, Canada and Europe who translate a total of 150 languages.

The company also provides services to the private sector, including banks, airlines and hotels, Ollinger said.

While the average Language Line emergency call takes 45 percent longer than an average 911 call, it's better than the alternative, he said.

"Any person on the front lines will tell you that not being able to communicate in an emergency situation is extremely trying and, in some cases, life-threatening," Ollinger said. "While Mesa may spend $8,000 a month, it's saving lives. I'm sure anyone who is on the receiving end is quite grateful."

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