Psycho Babble

Emergencies in Spanish

When emergency calls and miscommunications collide

By Jessica Love | February 20, 2014
Scott Davidson
Scott Davidson


Calls to 911 are rarely happy occasions, and in the midst of the grim chaos, it’s a dispatcher’s job to act as gatekeeper: Is there really an urgent threat to public safety? If so, does it justify a response?

For decades, linguists have studied how callers and call-takers approach the high-stakes exchanges. Rather than listening for a dispatcher’s questions, or specifying what help they need, for instance, callers often launch headfirst into tales of what’s gone wrong. It can take a bit of prodding to for dispatchers to clarify the critical details.

Sometimes communication breaks down, to tragic end. In 1992, a woman in Lexington, Massachusetts, named Kathleen Dempsey gave a dispatcher her address before pleading, “Help me. I’ve been stabbed.” For five hours, nobody responded to her emergency; she died. Why the neglect? It’s impossible to say for certain, but some have suggested that Dempsey’s dire condition, which left her unable to engage in the usual back-and-forth, had led the dispatcher to assume the call was a hoax.

Sometimes communication breaks down before it really starts. When dispatchers and callers don’t share a language, outside interpreters can be brought into the loop. But even this saving grace is not without its downside. “Given that emergency aid can arrive on-scene in as little as three minutes, the minute or two expended in locating a translator can be the difference—quite literally—between saving a life and losing one,” explains Chase Wesley Raymond, a doctoral student in sociology at UCLA (pdf available here). He describes the use of interpreters as a last resort. Dispatchers have just seconds to decide whether a productive exchange is likely without one—putting them, again, squarely in the role of gatekeeper.

So how do they do it? Raymond’s analysis of nearly 100 conversations between monolingual English 911 dispatchers and callers who’d requested Spanish language services revealed a fitful dance in which both caller and dispatcher tried to push their own linguistic agendas. Callers would often request the use of Spanish in Spanish—a gambit that tended to earn them an interpreter, as it avoided any display of competency in English. For their part, dispatchers resisted replying directly to questions if they’d been asked in Spanish, not wanting callers to believe they were proficient in a language they were not. (I ignore for now the question of why, in a city where more than 50 percent of the population was Latino, there were no bilingual interpreters.)

It’s not clear how successfully dispatchers were able to determine who needed a translator and who did not. Nataly Kelly, vice president of market development at Smartling and a veteran interpreter, pointed out in an email that many people with very limited English proficiency often try to communicate in broken English simply because they don’t know an interpreter is a possibility. This strategy has obvious dangers. “‘Where does it hurt?’ can be a fatal question if the person doesn’t know the word for certain parts of the body but tries to describe the general region and gets it wrong,” says Kelly.

Still, if callers could be matched with interpreters quickly, gate-keeping would be a moot point: everyone could speak in the language they favor. So what takes so long? For languages requested frequently, like Spanish, interpreters on call answer the phone after a single ring. “I’d be surprised if it took more than 30 seconds to get an interpreter online from the point they actually know what language is required,” says Kelly. But wait times do creep up when dispatchers have to enter billing codes before accessing the service, or a very rare language is requested, or a caller is unable to communicate which language she needs. (In the latter case, an operator at the interpreting service generally must do a “language match” before routing her to the appropriate interpreter.) Of course, technology like Google Translate might one day do all of this faster. But until it can handle hysterical voices accurately enough to be entrusted with lives—which is to say, not anytime soon—human interpreters are crucial.

The job isn’t for the faint of heart. Kelly begins her book Found in Translation (co-written with Jost Zetzsche) with a disturbing anecdote. Late one Friday night, she gets a call from an emergency dispatcher, putting through a 911 caller speaking Spanish: “I hear a timid female voice speaking so quietly that I can barely make out the words. ‘Me va a matar,’ she whispers. The tiny hairs on my arm stand up on end. I swiftly render her words into English: ‘He’s going to kill me.’” Kelly continues to relay the women’s information to the dispatcher:  He’s just outside the window. He has a gun. He’s in the hallway. He’s at the door. And then, with a click, the woman hangs up.

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