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Contractor Translates for Chattanooga 911 Operators

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Non-English speakers phoned Hamilton County 911 dispatchers 442 times in the last nine months, records show.

The 911 operators don't speak Spanish, and Hamilton County officials really do not encourage them to learn, an official said.

"In emergency situations, you've got to be really accurate," said John Stuermer, 911's executive director. "We use a contractor to translate because we need translators who can get us the information quickly. ... It isn't practical to staff a really efficient bilingual dispatcher."

Statewide, almost all 911 call centers use Language Line Services, a Monterey, Calif.-based company, to translate. When a non-English speaker phones, the dispatcher calls Language Line, which finds the appropriate translator.

Language Line has a list of 176 languages the service can translate.

That includes some oddities such as Chaochow, a Chinese dialect; Urdu, spoken in parts of South Asia; and Twi, spoken in Ghana, said Dale Hansman, a company spokesman.

Of the 442 local calls, 95 percent of those requiring a translator were from Spanish speakers, records show, but 18 callers needed Vietnamese translators, one person needed a Haitian Creole translator and another person required help from a person fluent in Farsi.

"It's one thing to have one person on staff all the time who can speak Spanish," Mr. Hansman said. "But it's just not practical to have someone on staff who can speak all the dialects necessary and to handle all the languages out there."

In fact, some Mexicans who immigrate to the United States speak Spanish dialects that many other Hispanics can't understand, said Sylvia Rangel, office manager at La Paz de Dios, an immigrant advocacy group.

"In the Chattanooga area, the Hispanic community, there are people who come from small villages and they (speak a dialect many Hispanics do not understand)," Ms. Rangel said. "With their dialects, it's much more hard to call 911."

Hamilton Countypays $1.50 to $2.50 a minute for the translations, Mr. Hansman said. He said most calls last six to eight minutes. Even though that equals about $14 per call, officials agreed it's worth it.

"It's very cost efficient," Mr. Hansman said. "You don't have to hire anyone, pay for travel or endure a waiting time."

Mr. Hansman said his group connects callers with the most popular 10 language translators within 14 seconds. Spanish interpreters can be contacted within three seconds, he said.

With a high turnover and relatively modest pay at Tennessee's 911 centers, it's not likely that officials could train and keep a bilingual dispatcher anyway, said Lynn Questell, executive director of the Tennessee Emergency Communication Board.

"There's a lot of turnover," Ms. Questell said. "We are very much wanting to change that, but now we have to remember that 911 dispatchers are the very first, first responders that the public communicates with, and it's so very important that they get it right."

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