Imagine you are experiencing a life-or-death emergency and dial 911 for help. A calm voice answers, ready to help. Now imagine your ability to speak English is limited. Fortunately, the Liberty County 911 dispatcher can connect you to a trained interpreter. You relax a little, knowing Liberty County’s first responders will receive valuable information to save lives and property.
“I don’t know if we could engage a translator any faster,” Liberty County Public Safety Communications Director Tom Wahl said. “Our phone system is programmed to connect the caller and the communications officer directly with the language line. Once connected, we continue with normal processing of the call for service.”
Fielding multilingual calls is nothing new for the county’s public safety communications center. Liberty and other rural counties across the state have the benefit of using Language Line Services through membership in the Georgia Emergency Number Association.
White County EMA Director David Murphy, association treasurer, oversees the language-line account for about 40 members.
“The association began providing language-line services to our membership a few years ago,” Murphy said. He explained agencies with individual accounts are charged a $50 monthly service fee, even if they don’t use the service for a particular month.
Murphy said offering the service to its members ensures these county communications centers are only charged for “what they use.”
Wahl said the county’s communications center does not have a need for the language line all the time.
“It runs in spurts,” he said. “We are billed for the service as we use it. Some months we use the service regularly, others, not at all.”
The language-line service offers 170 languages, Wahl said.
“We have to react to the situations taking place,” he said. “If someone is speaking Spanish, we’ll get an interpreter on the phone. If it’s one of the Asian dialects, we get someone for that.”
Wahl said they would be hard-pressed to find a local interpreter as quickly. The service costs about $4 a minute, he said.
Wahl said language services for 911 centers have been around for at least 20 years.
“Every agency I’ve ever worked with in this field has had interpreter services available,” he said. Wahl has worked 911 in Kansas City, Kansas, Colorado and Pennsylvania prior to living and working in Georgia.
Murphy said the association’s February billing showed the total percentages of foreign language calls received by its members last month. Eighty-seven percent of calls needed Spanish interpreters, he said. Korean calls were at 5 percent, Vietnamese was at 3 percent, Arabic was at 2 percent and there was one call for Mandarin and one for Cantonese, Murphy said.
“We try to provide this benefit to those counties that would not normally have these types of calls,” he said.
Greg Holt, government markets manager for Language Line Services, said the company’s growth and additions of unfamiliar languages mirrors the patterns of immigration in the United States.
“The number of languages we see and the variety has changed,” Holt said. “That turns into a recruiting challenge (for interpreters) as well.”
Along with such familiar languages as Spanish, Language Line Services also offers interpreters and translators for lesser known languages like Dari, Chaldean, Farsi, Igbo, Javanese, Kirundi, Laotian, Navajo and Yiddish.
Holt said the company recruits interpreters from universities and language schools and places classifieds in ethnic media. He said a majority of Language Line interpreters work from home.
“Once we find them, we have to put them through our training,” Holt said. It includes basic 911 procedures training with instructors from the emergency-response industry and accuracy in translating, he said.
“The integrity of the message is kept,” Holt said. “Also, confidentiality is key for interpreters.”