What happens when 911 doesn’t speak your language?

Sedgwick County’s director of emergency communications wants more bilingual staff, but that comes at a cost the commission didn’t want to pay.

The Wichita Beacon by Trace Salzbrenner

When you dial 911, every second counts. Be prepared to give your address, the nature of your emergency and — your language to the 911 dispatchers. If you don’t speak English, be ready to wait.

The Sedgwick County emergency response system relies on third-party translation services to handle foreign language calls. Connecting a call to somebody who speaks something other than English can add 20 to 30 seconds.

“Five seconds is our connection goal,” said Elora Forshee, director of emergency communications in Sedgwick County. “But sometimes it can take 20 or 30 seconds for us to find a translator, especially when it’s late at night or the language is uncommon.”  

Thirty seconds is a long time, she said, when someone’s not breathing, when a heart has stopped, when paramedics are needed at a car accident or a person is bleeding from a gunshot wound.

“I can only imagine being (a refugee or immigrant) in a country where I did not speak the language and how frazzled I would be in general,” Forshee said, “let alone while I am experiencing this traumatic event.”

Last year, Sedgwick County fielded more than 1,000 calls to 911 in languages no one at the Sedgwick County Emergency Communications Center could speak, she said. 

In those tense moments, emergency dispatchers use third-party translation services called language lines to help determine the emergency and the help needed. The two language lines used by Sedgwick County cover more than 250 languages. 

However, these services come with flaws, and like many industries now — including Sedgwick County’s emergency services — the language lines face staff shortages. 

A report earlier this year by KWCH found that about half of calls to 911 in Sedgwick County are not immediately answered by a person, due to staffing shortages. The average wait time for those placed on hold is five seconds, according to the television station report. 

Roughly one in 14 people in Wichita say they speak English less than “very well.” 

Discussion of increasing pay for bilingual employees to boost recruitment stalled earlier this year. Sheena Schmutz, Sedgwick County’s chief human resources officer, said that the issue has not been raised since those early budget meetings. 

Yeni Silva-Renteria, executive director of the International Rescue Committee office in Wichita, regularly hears about long wait times from the refugees she works with. She’s been a consultant to the county looking for solutions.

“Oftentimes, when these people are calling 911 it’s because they … really are in an emergency,” she said. 

Silva-Renteria said it’s already hard to get refugees to call 911 because many come from places where they saw government as a threat rather than a form of rescue. 

Long calls and wait times make it harder.

“Being able to literally have that translation of what the crisis is, and (to) be able to provide that information to whoever is responding with the accurate information in a timely manner,” she said, “is life and death.”

Tips for calling 911: 
Learn how to say “I speak ____” and “I live at ____” in English, filling in the language you are most familiar with and your home address. This will help quicken the call process. 

If you call 911 and do not know these, do not worry. Emergency responders will be sent to the location of the call even if no information can be provided. Just stay on the phone.

Wichita’s most used languages

Data from Sedgwick County’s emergency communications office show the languages most commonly used by callers other than English were Spanish, Vietnamese, Lao and Arabic. 

Hispanic and Latino people make up nearly 15% of Sedgwick County residents, or more than 75,000 people. People of Vietnamese descent make up 2% of Sedgwick County residents, or roughly 8,500 people.

Sedgwick County 911 has eight bilingual staffers able to speak both English and Spanish. That’s not enough, according to Forshee, but it’s better than having none. None of the call center staff speaks Vietnamese.

Securing bilingual dispatchers for Sedgwick County 911

Language access is a problem countywide. 

Talks about paying bilingual employees a premium stalled amid efforts to boost pay more broadly across the Sedgwick County payroll. The county commission ultimately hiked pay by almost $23 million to provide a 3% pay bump.

That was intended to address staffing shortages following the COVID-19 pandemic. The shortages affect the county jail, COMCARE, EMS and the 911 call center. 

“We really wanted to shore up our compensation this year,” said Sarah Lopez, Sedgwick County District 2 commissioner.

Now that the base pay has been raised, she said, the commission can look at other ways to make working for the county more worthwhile, including looking again at a pay bump for bilingual workers. 

Sedgwick County District 4 County Commissioner Ryan Baty said, “I don’t think anyone is ready to abandon this yet.” 

Challenges to language interpretation in 911

Silva-Renteria hopes that the 911 call center will get the pay increase to recruit more bilingual employees.

“We are very proud of our diversity here in Wichita,” Silva-Renteria said. “But in my experience with talking to county commissioners and different boards, we have a hard time funding our services in ways that help the diversity.” 

Baty and Lopez said the problem is cost. 

“The biggest pushback we are going to see is budgetary,” Lopez said. “Like, how much is this going to cost?” 

Lopez said the commission considered pay increases from 35 to 50 cents per hour to bilingual employees using more than one language in their work. For workers at the 911 call center, a 50-cent raise would bring the pay of a trained dispatcher to $20.99 an hour. 

“But what we don’t know is how many employees would qualify for this raise and how many positions would then be filled due to this raise,” Lopez said. The county dropped the raise idea before identifying how many workers it would affect. 

Forshee hopes the added pay for bilingual staff will be revisited and that with better recruitment, her staff may come to better reflect the community they serve. 

“There are a lot of families from different places coming here to make their home,” said Forshee. “I want them to feel like this service is theirs too.”

Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan. More by Trace Salzbrenner

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon