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Ga. dispatchers learn Spanish

Need a bridge in emergencies

FORT VALLEY, Ga. -- "What's that word?" asked Peach County Deputy Sheriff Shane Broome, looking disconsolately at his "Survival Spanish" textbook.

Prodded by classmates -- all public safety officers from central Georgia -- Broome reads aloud "a la izquierda," or "to the left." Then his teacher continues around the room, having the two dozen students repeat basic commands in Spanish.

"It's been a big problem," Broome said later of his inability to speak with the many Hispanics who don't speak English that he stops while patrolling Interstate 75. "It's hard to even know if they're even able to drive. I'd try to take the one or two words I know -- I know driver's license, "licencia" -- and sign it out."

He hopes the traffic stops will go smoother after a three-day class offered by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, especially since he plans to keep his textbook -- with its translations for everything from "windshield wiper" to "drop that weapon" -- in his patrol car.

Every day, emergency responders and law enforcement officers nationwide help non-English speaking people whose lives might be in immediate danger. The job is particularly challenging for small agencies in the South, which has seen a recent influx of Hispanic residents.

Many dispatchers and officers are going out of their way to learn Spanish, and departments are recruiting bilingual employees and buying translating technology as they adapt to changing demographics.

It all starts at 911 centers. Over the last two years, there's been increasing demand nationwide for on-the-phone interpreters such as those provided by Monterey, Calif.-based Language Line Services. Spanish is the most requested language.

When a non-English speaker dials 911, the dispatcher gets a live interpreter who, for about $1.65 a minute, holds a three-way conversation to assess the emergency.

Most are straightforward police or medical calls, such as burglaries and heart attacks, but interpreters are especially useful in breaking through cultural barriers in cases such as domestic violence, said Danyune Geertsen, a company interpreter.

"A person speaking Spanish on every shift would be a dream come true," said Mary-Anne Eaton, E911 director in Tift County in southern Georgia, home to thousands of immigrants who pick peanuts, peaches, and cotton in the area's fields. Of her 27 dispatchers, only one speaks Spanish.

Past the initial call, things get dicier for emergency responders.

"It gets real hard to deal with because . . . we don't know what the problem is beyond what we see," said Dennis Garrett, a firefighter from Houston County.

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