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911 dispatchers see increase in Spanish-only calls

9-1-1 in the News, Job | | March 14, 2012 at 7:58 am

GALVESTON COUNTY, TX — With the number of Spanish-only speakers calling 911 on the rise, county agencies are finding ways to clear the language barrier.

Agencies are hiring bilingual police, fire and ambulance dispatchers, paying for a translation service and transferring calls to on-duty police officers who can interpret.

Although the evidence of the increase is purely anecdotal, Galveston County saw a 4 percent increase in the Hispanic population since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Dispatchers countywide answered about 200,000 emergency calls last year, but there are no statistics readily available to easily identify how many callers spoke only Spanish.

“When I started in law enforcement 25 years ago, Spanish-only was not real common,” said Maj. Ray Tuttoilmondo, communication supervisor of the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office. “Over that period of time, has it increased? To be sure it has. It’s been ever increasing with the change of demographics of our entire county.”

The sheriff’s office staffs two night-shift dispatchers fluent in Spanish. They alternate shifts, but in their absence, there’s usually a jailer on staff who can interpret for dispatchers, Tuttoilmondo said.

When dispatchers in the cities of League City and Dickinson can’t understand where to send help, they connect the caller to a service called Language Line.

League City uses the service when its three Spanish-speaking dispatchers aren’t available, said Kim Hera, the city’s communication manager.

Of the roughly 36,000 calls that came into the center last year, 75 were sent to the interpreting service, Hera said.

“It’s faster to get service through the Language Line,” Hera said. “During the day, we have several people who speak Spanish to call a translator in.”

The city of Dickinson also uses the Language Line, at 68 cents per minute, on a weekly basis. Most of the Spanish-only calls come in after hours, but a records clerk interprets daytime calls, Vernita Rawls, the city’s communication supervisor, said.

And in Galveston, dispatchers at times transfer Spanish-only speakers to the cellphones of officers who can interpret while on duty, Galveston police Sgt. Ken Weems said.

“Unfortunately, bilingual dispatchers are in short supply right now,” Weems said. “Currently, we’re going through the hiring process to try to obtain them.”

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