Refugees present language barrier to responders

Refugees present language barrier to responders

By John Kanelis


Second of a two-part series 
 
Amarillo's combined emergency response system answers roughly 560,000 calls for help each year, according the man who manages it. 
 
Just this past October, said Terry Bavousett, manager of the Amarillo Emergency Communications Center, dispatchers took calls from 175 individuals who required translators. 
 
"That doesn't seem like a lot," Bavousett said, "but it feels like a lot, because it's hard. We have to be sure we get it right when these calls come in." 
 
Amarillo is known as something of a "magnet" for refugees fleeing war, persecution, poverty, political upheaval – all manner of circumstances that are hardly commonplace to most Americans. When those refugees get into trouble, or when they need assistance, they need to talk to someone who speaks their language. 
 
The folks on the front line of that need quite often are the dispatchers who work at the city's combined dispatch center at Eight Avenue and Buchanan Street in downtown Amarillo. The center, in fact, is right next to some major construction work now underway: the Xcel Energy office complex and the new Embassy Suites hotel. 
 
Bavousett runs the center, continuing a job he's done at the local and state level for the past 29 years. Bavousett retired as director of the state emergency services department in Austin and returned to the Texas Panhandle to take over the dispatch center that came on line in 2009.  
 
The center handles emergency calls for police, fire and emergency medical personnel. They all occupy separate segments of the call center's sprawling main floor. 
 
So, what happens when someone from a foreign land – who doesn't speak English fluently, or who might not even be sufficiently conversant in the language – calls in? 
 
Bavouesett said the AECC subscribes to a service, which is on call for 24 hours of every day and answers emergency calls from dispatchers who receive the request for assistance.  
 
"We like this system quite well," Bavousett said, explaining that of the non-English-speaking callers who phone in, roughly 70 percent of them speak Spanish, 9 percent are Somali, 6 percent speak Burmese and 5 percent speak Arabic. "We have some other languages we have to deal with, too," Bavousett said, such as Swahili, Mandarin (Chinese), Farsi, Vietnamese, Lao and Korean. 
 
"Most of these folks might know a few (English) words," Bavousett explained, adding that the dispatcher will ask them to identify their native language. Once the dispatcher knows the language, he or she calls Voiance and the service puts the dispatcher in touch quickly with an interpreter fluent in that language. 
 
The dispatchers then follow a structured protocol with every call they get, Bavousett explained. "We ask them (the caller) for their location, we ask them for a call-back phone number and then we ask them to tell us what happened," Bavousett said. 
  
The last question, he said, "lets us know if we're dealing with a time-sensitive call. If someone tells us they're having chest pains, well, that requires an immediate response. But if someone says their bike was stolen two or three hours ago, then we're not going to place that on as high a priority." 
 
The average telephone time for someone needing interpretation averages about five minutes with someone who speaks Spanish, Bavousett said; other foreign, non-Spanish languages require about seven minutes to complete a call, he said.  
 
"The phone time usually is about two to three minutes with an English-speaker," he said. 
 
Bavousett echoed the view expressed by Amarillo Police Sgt. Brent Barbee about the relative lack of assimilation with many of today's immigrants. "We do have a significant number of residents here who come from other countries," he said, "and quite often they don't report crimes that occur within their communities." 
 
"Yes, it's my impression that a lot of incidents go unreported," he said. Occasionally, he explained, calls come from individuals who tell of an incident that occurred "a long time ago. We'll then check it out and find out it didn't happen. We check it out and learn that's not the case." 
 
Barbee also noted that in many countries, the police are seen as the "bad guys." Bavousett noted, too, that dispatchers on occasion will hear from a caller who'll report an incident, but then say "I know you won't do anything about it, but they're calling anyway." 
 
People from many cultures, Bavousett said, "will deal with these issues themselves. Let's say a rape occurs, a father's job is 'take care of the problem.'" 
 
Of the 560,000 calls that come into AECC each year, Bavousett said, law enforcement gets the greatest volume of calls, followed in order by emergency medical, Animal Management and Welfare and fire calls. 
 
The city has gone through quite a significant demographic change in the years since Bavousett first got into the emergency response business. "Amarillo is actually has become a pretty cosmopolitan city, with all the cultures that we have here," he said. 
 
Thus, he said, the personnel working at the dispatch center must take great care when they receive a call from someone whose first language is something other than English.  
 
"We just cannot hurry the process" when a call comes in to the center, Bavousett said. "We always want the right help to get to the right place and help the right people."

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