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Safety personnel rise to bilingual challenges

Shawna Lisowski received a 911 call last year from someone who spoke Spanish. The Lucas County Emergency Medical Services dispatcher didn't understand the caller, but a county sheriff's dispatcher sitting nearby did and served as an interpreter.

Such situations aren't unusual in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, or elsewhere across the United States. Law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMS workers, and court and jail employees often seek interpreters to communicate with those don't speak or understand English and with those who are deaf.

Though Spanish is the language for which an interpreter is needed most often, authorities occasionally run into an Asian dialect or, in the case of Columbus police, a growing number of Somalis. Emergency dispatch centers have TDDs, or telecommunication devices, for the deaf.

Spanish-speaking attorneys, bilingual employees, interpreters from agencies, and high school foreign language teachers are called upon to communicate with non-English speakers. Authorities also contract with agencies for sign-language interpreters for the deaf.

Toledo police are compiling a list of officers who are bilingual or know sign language to be utilized on the streets as needed. The list will be finished within the next 30 days and updated annually, Capt. Mike Murphy said.

Lt. Jim O'Bryant, who oversees Toledo police training, said the department may work with Owens Community College on a voluntary training seminar for officers to learn conversational Spanish. The department has created some paperwork in Spanish, such as search warrants, to assist communication.

Lucas County EMS printed a six-page booklet with basic Spanish questions and phrases, their English equivalents, and pronunciation guides for dispatchers to use. The questions require yes or no answers and are to give dispatchers enough information to get the appropriate help to the caller, said Pat Moomey, EMS communications manager.

“Even if it helps with one call, it's worth it,” she said.

The Sandusky County Sheriff's Department has more than a half-dozen employees who speak Spanish. That comes in handy in the summer, when thousands of migrant workers come to the county to help pick crops.

“We just know that's something we will be dealing with in one respect or another. Most of us can at least understand a little Spanish, so we can get by, especially on the phone,” said Capt. Carmella Riffle, who oversees Sandusky County's dispatch center.

At the Sandusky County jail, several correction officers speak Spanish, and new inmates often have a family member or friend who speaks English. If all else fails, nonviolent bilingual prisoners are used as interpreters.

Pamela Roberts, Toledo Municipal Court administrator, said the court has used foreign language interpreters 48 times this year through Oct. 31, spending $4,480 for the services. Most of the services have been for Spanish speakers.

Through Nov. 4, the court has used sign-language interpreters 18 times at a cost of $1,382.

Jan Clark Monk, executive director of the International Institute of Greater Toledo, said most requests for interpreters made to the nonprofit organization that assists immigrants come from the courts, especially Toledo Municipal. Other requests come from hospitals and even the marriage license bureau.

Juanita Bennett, administrative assistant for Judge Margaret Weaver of Sandusky County Common Pleas Court, said the court tries to find bilingual attorneys for defendants who don't speak English. If that fails, the court pays for an interpreter, at a cost of $25 an hour.

In Defiance County, the courts use interpreters to assist non-English-speaking defendants about once every two months, said Lois Harbourt, Defiance Municipal Court clerk.

Jane Randall, a Toledo lawyer who speaks English and Spanish, said the number of bilingual attorneys locally is relatively small. Having an attorney who speaks a defendant's primary language is the best way to prevent misunderstandings, she said, even when a translator is used.

“There can be no question, for instance, if the court translator who comes in is doing the job adequately, because the attorney knows. It's extremely helpful and useful and comforting to the person who is accused. And it avoids potential error and probably avoids some issues on appeal,” she said.

Some U.S. cities are on the cutting edge of offering sign and foreign language interpreters, educating their employees to be bilingual, and holding cultural sensitivity training.

In Columbus, officers carry a general rules manual that includes five pages with the phrases “Please wait. We are calling an interpreter to help you.” in 38 languages.

Sgt. C.J. Everhart said the department recently held a training session about the Somalian culture because of the large Somalian population in the city. It also has a proposal for a diverse cultural response unit.

Houston police receive training in conversational Spanish and Vietnamese, sign language, and various cultures. Officers qualified to speak another language wear lapel pins designating what language they speak, said spokesman John Leggio.

Phoenix firefighters can learn Spanish by entering a program in which they work in a firehouse where everything spoken and put on paper and signs is in the language. The training was put to good use when a department chaplain gave last rites in Spanish to a child who was killed in a car accident.

“It was enormously comforting for the dad,” said Bob Khan, assistant Phoenix fire chief.

Blade Staff Writer Steve Murphy contributed to this report.

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