LanguageLine Blog

What To Do if a 911 Caller Doesn't Speak English - Part One

Written by Greg Holt | April 21, 2015

The call chirps into her headset. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, then presses the call button, opens her eyes and focuses on the screen in front of her.

Call taker: “9-1-1. What is your emergency?”

Caller: “¡Por favor, ayúdeme! ¡Mi hija no está respirando!...

Her eyes close again for a moment as she realizes this situation just became a lot more dangerous.

***

The men and women serving at 911 call centers across the United States are an often underappreciated but vital link in the emergency response chain. Without the hard work they do every minute of every day, lives would be changed forever or even lost.

The job itself can be highly stressful as every call potentially thrusts the call taker into a life-and-death situation. Callers are often panicked, in pain, or for some other reason difficult to communicate with or get vital information from. But 911 call takers are trained to handle these calls with cool and calm professionalism and to guide the conversation skillfully to the point that the necessary assistance can be dispatched as quickly as possible.

But what if the caller speaks a language other than English?

As highlighted in our opening dramatization, this can instantly make an already stressful situation even worse because now there’s a barrier between the caller and the representative that directly impacts that all-important lifeline of clear communication.

Fortunately, 911 call takers have trained professionals like the 911 telephone interpreters from LanguageLine Solutions available to assist at a moment’s notice. But there are still factors the call taker should be aware of in order to ensure that a call with an interpreter is handled as quickly and efficiently as possible since time is of the essence.

April is National 911 Education Month

As part of LanguageLine’s support for National 911 Education Month, we wanted to shine the spotlight on this crucial aspect of emergency call center interactions. To do so, we compiled survey responses from over 400 of LanguageLine’s most experienced interpreters – representing 46 different languages – who are specially trained to handle interpreting requirements that are unique to emergency calls. Our interpreters handle over 3 million emergency calls a year, on demand.

We asked them two questions:

  1. What language and cultural issues have you observed that slow down communication on 911 calls?
  2. What advice would you offer for 911 call takers to help them overcome these cultural and language issues and more easily handle these calls?

The responses we received were both frank and insightful. In the remainder of this post and the next post we publish, we will be sharing our 911 interpreters’ thoughts with you. As we do, imagine yourself in one of the roles described: the English-speaking 911 call taker who needs vital pieces of information quickly and clearly, the LEP (limited English proficient) caller who desperately needs emergency help, and the interpreter seeking to bridge that divide and get the caller the help they need.

We will spend the rest of this post discussing two issues that often arise when an LEP person calls 911, along with suggestions from our interpreters on how to work through these issues. Another three language and cultural issues, and strategies to work through them, will be discussed in Part Two of this post series.

Please note that no insights posted below should be construed as generalized or stereotypical representations of members of a particular culture or language community. Rather, they represent the real-life observations and experiences of trained interpreters who work with LEP individuals every day during real-life emergencies.

Issue #1: Not getting to the point

A running theme many of our interpreters noted was that many LEP callers have a tendency to respond to open-ended questions with long answers that may seem to be overly detailed or even rambling in nature.

They describe the cultures of these individuals as “story tellers” and confirm that this isn’t because the caller wants to be difficult or doesn’t understand the question, it’s really just a “conversational cultural trait.”

As an example, one interpreter noted, “If you ask a Latino if his mother is there, he will more likely respond, ‘my Mom was here yesterday but she left’ instead of just saying, ‘no’.”

This tendency is understandably amplified by the stress the caller is under at the time.

English, on the other hand, can be a very direct language, requiring very few words to get a point across. Because of this difference, 911 call takers may become impatient or even angry as they feel the precious seconds ticking away while the caller rambles on.

Often the simplest way to overcome this tendency is if the call taker can structure “yes” or “no” questions and ask the caller to respond with “yes” or “no”. Interpreters suggested that instead of asking, “what is your emergency?” ask “is this an emergency?” And instead of saying, “where are you hurt?” ask “are you bleeding?” or another appropriate yes/no question.

And, in all cases, patience will help.

Issue #2: Unknown addresses

For most Americans, the home address is one of the first things learned as a child. Most people who grew up in this country can immediately rattle off their address without a second thought, even when they’re panicked.

But this isn’t a universal fact, it’s just a cultural norm.

For example, in Haiti, as one of our interpreters observed, “there are almost no addresses. We go by directions. For example, ‘I live in the house next to the street vendor on the corner and behind the red brick building.’”

For this reason, many LEPs callers struggle with the concept of a home address. Combining that with the fact that addresses in English cannot be effectively translated but must be phonetically pronounced or spelled, complicates things. The caller’s level of English literacy is a factor also.

In many cases the callers simply don’t know or can’t properly communicate their address, especially when they’re upset. And since the interpreter likely has no familiarity with the area, it can be a real challenge to decipher enough information to give the call taker what they need.

One best resolution to this issue, if allowable, is for the call taker to provide the location information that appears on their screen and ask the interpreter to confirm it with the caller. If the call taker is familiar with the area, they may need to patiently assist in deciphering any directions the interpreter receives.

Again, patience is a virtue here as well.

In the next post in this series, we will discuss three more cultural and language issues that can slow down 911 emergency calls.

For more information about bridging this gap in your 911 call center, contact LanguageLine Solutions today.