This piece was originally published in the Seattle Times on Sept. 28, 2023, republished here with permission. Translated versions are available in Tagalog, Vietnamese, and both traditional and simplified Chinese, thanks to support from the ACRS.
There’s an art to answering 911 calls when the person in need of help doesn’t speak English.
Getting non-English speakers to call in the first place may be the bigger challenge since many residents aren’t aware that 911 dispatchers have near-instant, 24-hour access to interpreters who speak a combined 194 languages and dialects.
“I think people don’t call at all because they don’t think they can get somebody to speak to them in their language,” said Jacob Adams, the deputy director of operations for the city of Seattle’s Community Safety and Communications Center. “We assist people in multiple languages, and we’re here to help.”
Police officers also can enlist the aid of interpreters with a phone call from their department-issued cellphones when interviewing non-English speakers at crime or accident scenes.
Getting that word out to the city’s increasingly diverse ethnic communities took on added urgency in the aftermath of a string of armed home-invasion robberies targeting Asian residents in the Seattle Police Department’s South Precinct.
In most of those cases, there was a 15-to-20-minute delay in dispatching officers because instead of calling 911 directly, victims first called an English-speaking friend or relative, who then called 911 and relayed information on the victims’ behalf, according to Adams and Mark Solomon, the South Precinct’s crime prevention coordinator.
The delays gave the robbers ample time to flee after forcing their way into homes, then assaulting, pistol-whipping or threatening residents at gunpoint to turn over cash, jewelry, and other valuables.
Seattle police arrested five people — four adult men and a 17-year-old boy — early Wednesday in connection with 14 robberies committed since June, and seized 14 handguns, ammunition, cash and drugs.
In some of the robberies, people were outside their homes and were forced to go inside at gunpoint, while others answered a knock or doorbell and the robbers pushed their way in when the door was opened, Solomon said at a community safety meeting hosted last week by the nonprofit Chinese Information & Service Center (CISC). In other cases, the robbers simply kicked a door in, he said.
Two CISC employees took turns interpreting Solomon’s words — and reading aloud written questions from the audience that included dozens of people who primarily speak Mandarin or Cantonese — during the meeting at the Jefferson Community Center on Beacon Hill.
“Your physical safety is more important than any item you have — if someone is willing to hurt you to get your stuff, give them your stuff,” Solomon told the gathering.
In an emergency, non-English speakers should call 911 and identify their primary language — such as Spanish, Vietnamese, or Tagalog — in English. The call-taker will then select that language from an automated system and conference-in an interpreter employed by CyraCom International, an Arizona-based language service provider previously known as Voiance, which the city has a contract with.
If someone is unable to name the language in English, “we can get language experts on the line to identify the language,” Adams said. But “knowing how to say your language — if you can say ‘Tigrinya’ or ‘Korean’ — that makes everybody’s jobs a million times easier.”
Once an interpreter is on the line, “it’s like a relay,” with the dispatcher asking questions that the interpreter repeats to the caller, and the interpreter then supplying those answers in English, he said.
Since “English doesn’t translate 100% into other languages,” Adams said 911 calls requiring the help of an interpreter “are some of the most complicated calls you’ll ever take.”
“It’s kind of an art. You have to ask short, closed-end questions because if a question is left too open, it can create too much of a dialogue” between the caller and interpreter before the dispatcher gets the answer, he said. Dispatchers will often ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions in order to understand how urgently police or medics are needed.
“It’s a great challenge for 911 operators because we have to get this information as quickly as possible,” Adams said.
Seattle police operated the 911 call center until spring 2021, when the City Council voted to shift responsibility for answering emergency calls to the newly-created Community Safety Communications Center. The center handles roughly 900,000 calls per year, or 2,000 to 2,500 calls to 911 each day, and there are requests for interpreters every shift, Adams said. The center’s operators can also access other relay services to assist blind and deaf callers and can receive text messages to 911 — in English only — that “serves our hearing-impaired community the most,” he said.
Texting to 911 is available countywide but should only be used if it is not safe to call 911, Adams said.
Seattle and King County also utilize Smart911, a free, national service that allows residents to voluntarily provide information about themselves and their households to 911 — including a home address, medical conditions and emergency contacts. A user’s profile pops up on a dispatcher’s screen only when that user calls 911 from a phone number registered with Smart911, then disappears once the call has ended (to sign up, go to Smart911.com).
The Smart911 service also allows users to select their preferred language from a list of more than 130 languages — which allows 911 dispatchers to immediately request an interpreter when the caller’s information appears.
Spanish is the most-requested language in Seattle, accounting for 60% to 70% of 911 calls requiring an interpreter, followed by Vietnamese, Mandarin, Russian and Cantonese, Adams said. But the city’s diversity means interpreters are also requested for 911 callers who speak any number of languages, including Ukrainian, French Creole and several African languages.
The 4,786 calls to 911 in which an interpreter’s aid was requested so far this year has already eclipsed the 4,193 calls in all of 2022, according to Adams. There were 3,256 such calls in 2021, up from 2,593 calls the year before.
Adams, who has worked as a 911 operator himself, recalled times he needed a Spanish interpreter but all of the language service’s Spanish interpreters were already on other calls.
“It’s a really helpless feeling,” he said. “We know people don’t call 911 for the heck of it so we know something is wrong but we’re at the mercy of the service in getting an interpreter.”