Charleston Co. 911 using 3rd-party services to break through language barriers

VIDEO: Charleston Co. 911 using 3rd-party services to break through language barriers

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - In an emergency, people expect to call 911 and get through to someone right away. But if English isn’t your main language, there could be difficulties explaining what is happening.

The Charleston County Consolidated 911 center has always used a translation service to help them during calls with non-English speakers.

Jim Lake, the director of the center, says sometimes they have staff available that can assist callers in those languages. However, the majority of the time they do rely on interpreters to assist on the calls.

Charleston County 911 has been using a service company called Voiance, that has access to 200+ languages.

"When someone calls 911 and English is not their primary language, if we don't have someone available that can immediately assist them, what we do is we use a translation service and ask them to hold on," Lake explained. "We then dial that number to the translation service and we connect them, and then we ask questions and the translator repeats those back in whatever language it may be."

In 2019, the Charleston Consolidated 911 center received over 600,000 calls. Over 1,700 of them were from people who weren’t able to speak English fluently.

During the year, dispatch received over 100 calls in Spanish each month. They still needed to use the service for a number of other languages.

This chart shows the different languages that the center received calls from in 2019:

Language Total Calls Percentage
Arabic 6 0.34%
Brazilian Portuguese 9 0.51%
French 6 0.34%
Haitian Creole 2 0.11%
Japanese 1 0.06%
Mandarin 5 0.29%
Portuguese 1 0.06%
Russian 10 0.57%
Spanish 1,706 97.49%
Vietnamese 4 0.23%

Lake says getting an interpreter on the phone can take anywhere from a couple of seconds, to minutes. If the caller can at least tell the call-taker their location, that would help them.

"It's often pretty easy for us to determine if it's a fire or a medical or police call even if we're not speaking the same language," Lake said. "But having that address, at least we can send someone to you."

Translation services are also available for people who choose to use non-emergency calls, texts to 911, and 911HelpMe.com.

The director says they often attend public events to provide public education about the services they offer, and recruitment opportunities.

For more information on those resources, reach out to the Charleston County 911 Public Educator at kjordan@charlestoncounty.org.

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