In an area such as Dallas, where the population is 1.28 million with 42.4% Hispanic and the rest speaking other languages, it is inevitable that there will always be a language barrier, especially during emergencies, such as what is regularly experienced by the first responders of Dallas.
Firefighter paramedic Sha Clayton may not know much about the 911 call that he had received but he does know that it is about smoke coming out from an apartment complex in Irving, and it is his job to put the story together so that he could direct the crew that is responding to the call.
A firsthand encounter
For firemen all over the world, fire is a universally recognized language, however, victims and patients do not have one universal language. This is something that the Irving Fire Department and the local news program, News 8 of WFAA, together with Sebastian Robertson, learned firsthand when they chanced upon an accident before the paramedics arrived.
They saw a truck that was facing in the wrong direction. A man was lying on the side of the road in Irving, along U.S. Highway 183. They did not know why the truck was like that and they had no idea how badly injured the man was. He was conscious and was speaking in a language that did not sound like English.
Sha Clayton was among the first paramedics to arrive. The most important thing for them to do immediately was to get the patient’s vital information. At that time it was indeed a group effort, since the paramedic did not speak the language of the victim. It was lucky that WFAA’s Sebastian Robertson could speak Spanish, and he became the interpreter at that instant, with Clayton telling him what questions to ask.
Clayton told Robertson that he had many patients before that could not speak English and at times they were called several times during a single shift when most of the patients were not English speakers.
Irving is a multi-ethnic city with a very large Hispanic community. However, according to the official statistics, there are only 15 Spanish speakers among the 300 paramedics and firefighters of the city. The best thing that first responders do when they do not have a translator with them is to use technology.
Clayton said that since it is very often that they do not have a translator or a Spanish speaker on the scene, he believes that his crew have the tools to break the language barrier. Their department uses a language line that they could call any time. The language line enables the first responders to immediately connect with a fluent speaker in a specific language via their tablets. With the press of a button, their tablets could change into any language. Clayton assures News 8 that they do not have a problem.
A bigger issue
According to Cristian Hinojosa, the president of the Hispanic Firefighters Association, the language issue is actually bigger. A Dallas firefighter, Hinojosa said that about 80% of the calls they respond to involve people who speak Spanish yet only about 17% of first responders at the Dallas Fire-Rescue team are Hispanics.
Based on the report gathered by News 8, the issue does not involve Irving and Dallas alone. Grand Prairie for example has only six Spanish speakers while Arlington has 14 paramedics and firefighters who speak Spanish.
With the number of emergency calls, Hinojosa, Clayton and the media wish they could have more Spanish speakers in their team who could provide the most efficient and immediate service to the large community they serve. They need more people who could have that compassionate connection with the community, someone who not only would be able to listen but would also understand them.