When Spanish speakers dial 9-1-1

Rebeca Armendariz

During a crucial 911 call, sometimes the difference of a few seconds can mean life or death.

And because of the 7,784 Spanish speaking Gilroy residents who claim they speak English “less than very good,” according to 2010 U.S. Census data, the need for Spanish speakers at Gilroy’s 911 dispatch center is a critical issue that needs to be reviewed, according to a few running for local office.

“I don’t think our 911 center is currently funded well,” said Council candidate and union activist Rebeca Armendariz last week during a meeting with the Gilroy Dispatch’s Editorial Board. “The staff isn’t bilingual and they aren’t serving Spanish speakers the way they should.”

Armendariz said there have been several recent scenarios in which a “crisis could have been averted” if the City’s 911 dispatcher had spoken Spanish.

Prompted by Armendariz’ statement, the Dispatch attempted to reach her for further comment multiple times during the past week, but Armendariz did not return phone calls.  

Currently, the emergency call center employs three full-time fluent Spanish speakers, as certified by a city employee test, out of a staff of 14 full-time English-speaking staff, according to Steve Ynzunza, the call center’s director.

Given that 80 percent of Gilroy’s emergency call staff do not speak Spanish, the city contracts a third-party translation service based in Monterey known as Language Line.

When a Spanish-speaking caller in Gilroy dials 911 and no one on staff can assist them, a fluent Spanish speaker from the 24-7 services of Language Line is added to the call to translate the caller’s crisis to English for Gilroy’s dispatcher.

“Literally, when we hit the transfer button, it would be like pressing an extension. There is no time wasted – the phone rings once and they are on the line,” Ynzunza said.

Language Line offers translation services in 92 languages to both businesses and governments and charges from 88 cents to $1.25 per minute, Ynzunza said.

The state of California absorbs the cost-per-minute for calls to Language Line, so Gilroy doesn’t allocate any money for the service, nor do they process the monthly bills.

In 2011, of the 155,170 total 911 calls made to the Gilroy center, 1,036 were farmed to Language Line for translation services – 1,025 of those were in Spanish. So far in 2012, 839 Spanish calls were transferred to Language Line for help. Ynzunza said he does not keep record of the number of Spanish calls that are taken in-house.

Transferred calls, on average, are four to five minutes each, while calls that remain in-house usually are under two minutes.

Ynzunza doesn’t see the length of time for translated calls as a problem.

“Even for Spanish callers that remain in-house with a Spanish dispatcher, they take longer because often the caller doesn’t understand how 911 calls work, so you need to spend time explaining things to them,” he said.

Ynzunza said a common issue with Spanish callers, along with many English callers during an adrenaline rush, is they assume the dispatcher can see what is going on.

“They’ll say, ‘we need the police right here,’ and we have to say, ‘well where is here?’” Ynzunza said.

No matter how efficient Language Line may be, some of those running for office in the upcoming Nov. 6 election say the current set up isn’t good enough.

Dion Bracco, current councilman and mayoral candidate, said that every 911 dispatcher in Gilroy should speak Spanish.

“Seeing as where we live, I think speaking Spanish should be a requirement for 911 staff,” Bracco said.

Bracco said it doesn’t make sense to outsource Spanish calls.  

“A lot of times you’re dealing with life or death situations when you call 911. If someone is having a heart attack and the dispatcher can’t handle the call you really don’t have the time to be connected with a translator,” he said.

Bracco said Language Line services make sense for the occasional call from lesser-spoken languages in the area – Vietnamese or Punjabi, for example – but not for the language that 40 percent of Gilroy residents cite as their primary language, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

“We should push for bilingual requirement in our hiring process. I don’t think you can require that they speak Spanish, but I think if an applicant does, they should receive priority,” he said.

Ynzunza said that bilingual applicants are always seen as a “plus,” but aren’t necessarily given priority due to city hiring standards. He said that emergency dispatchers who are certified as bilingual are entitled to a 5 percent pay raise.

Mayoral candidate Don Gage took a softer approach.

“I hope the translation service is quick, because that could make a big difference. But as long as it is covered, it doesn’t matter how,” Gage said.

Gage didn’t see the outsourcing of translation services as a problem, as long as the job is getting done.

“As long as they get quick response, that is all that counts,” he said.

Police Chief Denise Turner said that she personally has not heard any complaints about Language Line or the level of Spanish speaking staff at the 911 dispatch center.

“We are very satisfied with the service of Language Line. They are very responsive to calls,” Turner said.

Turner said the department as a whole is “aggressive” in recruiting bilingual officers, and that about 30 percent of the department’s patrol officers and community service officers speak Spanish.

“It’s one of the most diverse police departments I have ever seen,” she said.

Peter Arellano, mayoral candidate and current councilman did not return phone calls.

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