BREAKING THE LANGUAGE BARRIER

BY ADAM O’CONNOR

It is a familiar scenario in many departments. The dispatcher receives a call from 911 and transmits the following information to the fire department.

Dispatcher: “Respond to a reported house fire with possible entrapment. The calling party speaks very little English. We are communicating with a translator now …. From all indications, this is a working fire. We have received multiple calls. The trapped occupant is a juvenile.”

A fire with a child trapped and parents in the front yard is always a communications nightmare. It is the ultimate in multitasking. A company officer is tasked with giving an on-scene report, coordinating a fire attack, and getting good information from a frantic parent in the front yard. How many children? Where are they? Where are the stairs? Language barriers make tough situations tougher. This situation is tough as it is-add a language barrier, and it is almost impossible.

THE RESPONSE

We arrived on the scene quickly because it was just around the corner. As we pulled up, a distressed Hispanic woman met us at the curb screaming and hopping and pointing at the fire venting out of the side 3 wall. A firefighter from the truck crew tried briefly to communicate with her, but it was useless. She was clearly going to be no help in finding this child.

At this fire incident, we got lucky: The child was outside, but the incident drove home the urgency of the situation.

OUR APPROACH TO THE PROBLEM

Our neighborhoods were filling up with Hispanic, Burmese, African, and even Bosnian immigrants. This situation was bound to happen again. How would we handle it? We knew that the immigrants would eventually assimilate into our society and learn some English, but what would we do between now and then? We had to get a grasp on this situation before a life was lost.

THE APPROACH

We approached this communication problem the old-fashioned way: We asked Who? What? When? Where? and How?

Who?

We had identified three major immigrant groups in our community. They were, largest to smallest: Mexican, Burmese, and Bosnian.

What and When?

Our neighborhoods were filling with non-English speaking immigrants, and we had to provide them with service now! Whether they were illegally or legally living here didn’t matter. We had a job to do, and doing it properly meant we had to be able to communicate.

Where?

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Immigration certainly wasn’t new to our city, but this wave was different. The immigrants were arriving at an alarming pace and without any previous ties to the United States. This lack of established family put most newly arriving immigrants into income-adjusted apartments in the peripheral downtown area. These buildings can be rough; as the opportunity arises, many families try to secure a rental home in a safer neighborhood. It has been my experience that these people are extremely hard working and that this process doesn’t take long. This predictable housing progression made the immigrants fairly easy to find. We know where the income-adjusted apartments and the renter-occupied neighborhoods are. Inquiries to company officers in those neighborhoods confirmed what we expected. There had been an increase in these language-bound incidents of all types in the neighborhoods with the cheapest housing.

How?

How did they get here? In answering this question, we found the answer to many others. We discovered the majority of the legal immigrants were entering the country through one religious aid agency. This privately funded agency was arranging the immigrants’ arrival, housing, school, and job placements. Once we contacted the agency and expressed our concerns, a partnership was born.

THE PLAN

Now that we had answered all of our questions, we needed a plan. We decided we would approach this language barrier problem from two directions. We would collaborate with the police department to develop a translation guide for our frontline personnel, and we would try to educate the immigrants through station tours.

The Guide

We developed our translation guide (photo 1) in collaboration with the police department and several bilingual firefighters. It has six sections: Fire, Medical Assist, Automobile Accident, General, Report Information, and Terminology. We used our company officers to compile a list of most commonly asked questions and incorporated the statements in the appropriate section. The guide was developed for firefighters and is very specific to emergency runs and not very helpful in general conversation.


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The guide was developed by a graphic artist. We produced a training video to accompany it. In the training video, a translator introduces the guide, discusses pronunciation, and performs each translated question or statement (photo 2). When practicing for the video production, the translators raised their eyebrows more than once. Sentences such as “We have to take the door off the car” and “Where is the shooter?” were not what they were used to translating.

I have used this translation guide and the phrases in it numerous times. A week before this article was written, I used “calmate” (calm down) and “no se mueva” (don’t move) at a critical shooting. The victim to whom I was speaking understandably was excited, as he had been shot in the chest. Attempts to calm him in English were useless. However, as soon as he heard the commands in his native tongue, he relaxed enough for us to give him medical care.

The Tours

The second goal of our language program was to educate the newly arriving immigrants. We arranged tours with the aid organization that brought the immigrants into our city. The tours started with very basic safety issues. Many of these families had been in refugee camps for years and had never used an oven or a stovetop. This lack of familiarity had caused several kitchen fires already. One company officer told me of an incident where a “food on the stove fire” was reported; when they arrived, they found the family and the burnt pots hiding in the bushes. The immigrants were convinced they were going back to the camps for the offense of burning food. Aid workers explained to us that many of these immigrants had been harassed, abused, and extorted by men in uniforms their whole lives. These fire safety tours would prove to be useful in educating about not only fire safety and car seats but also how to build relationships.

Soccer Balls


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We were struggling to find a way to communicate the 911 system in our tours when we happened upon the soccer balls. The Hispanic liaison officer for the police department explained the importance of working through the children. They would learn English more quickly because of school and social interactions and would then teach it to their parents. He had experienced this while working in Texas. We decided then that each child would receive a soccer ball inscribed with the words “Emergency Call 911” at the end of the tour (photo 3). For many immigrant children, these were the first words they learned in English.

LESSONS LEARNED

Things happen fast. Immigrants by definition are in a state of transition. Don’t waste time trying to teach your whole department a foreign language. The target group could be gone or assimilated before you finish a lengthy project. Decide what questions are important to providing service, and get them translated and distributed.

When we created this translation guide, there was an influx of Bosnian refugees. They came from a modern country that had been ravaged by war. They have assimilated into our society very quickly. We could probably throw that section of the guide away. However, if we needed something to help us communicate during that transition period, we would have had it. As an example of how fast people assimilate, the young lady who did the Bosnian translation work for us is now a city police officer.

Know your resources. Not all languages are practical for emergency workers to learn. As an example, the Burmese language is completely tonal. It doesn’t use English characters and isn’t something one would read from a binder in the middle of an emergency run. In these situations, the best bet is to make sure people are safe and to wait for a translator. Our communications department has a list of translators who will come to the scene; we can also get immediate translations through a paid telephone translation service.

Have something to say. One evening the engine crew had grabbed a female Burmese jumper off the Columbia Street Bridge. The police were waiting with her in the station dining room for a translator when I walked in. She was very agitated and berated the firefighters in Burmese. I said the three Burmese words I know: “Hello,” “Fireman,” and “Friend.” She immediately calmed down. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for her to figure out I knew only these three words. Once she discovered I was an imposter, her frustration grew, and her unintelligible abuse now included a sarcastic tone directed at me.

I learned my lesson. Be very deliberate in what you are saying so that the wrong message isn’t given. We responded to a hanging in a Burmese household a few weeks before this article was written. The family met us at the door. Thankfully, I resisted the urge to use my three words. It was obvious to everyone in the room what the problem was, and nothing in any language was going to fix it.

Recognize your successes, and build. We continue to experience a large Hispanic immigration. Our translation guide has been very helpful in serving these families, and we will continue to build on it. The most important lesson I have learned from this group is to talk to the children. The children almost always know more English than the parents. They learn it at school and from peers. Also, take every opportunity to be the good guy. Establish a rapport on nonemergency runs and at tours. It will pay off at more critical incidents.

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Immigration is our story also. It is the long hard journey, the suffering, that builds family loyalty and character for generations to follow. As firefighters, we have a responsibility to provide professional service to all of our neighbors. Good service requires good communication and asking the questions Who? What? When? Where? and How?

ADAM O’CONNOR is a member of Fort Wayne (IN) Fire Department Engine 11.

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