911 Response Still Hindered By Language Barrier, Request for Billing Info

The drowning death of a young girl in West Columbus Tuesday is raising questions about central Ohio’s network of 911 call centers – and the lack of foreign language-speaking operators. 4-year-old Jennifer Garcia was pulled from a pond near her apartment Tuesday afternoon. Medical assistance was delayed because her stepfather and her mother spoke mostly Spanish.

“Fire alarm office.”

“Okay, this is County. It’s a medical emergency, I can’t understand the caller but they’re at 5657 Elam Way.”

Early Tuesday afternoon a Franklin County 911 operator answered a frantic cell phone call from a Spanish speaking man and woman who reported finding the girl in a pond. The call was transferred twice, first to the city’s 911 center, then to the Columbus Fire Division because it was a medical emergency. A recording of the call shows the trouble dispatchers had gathering more information.

“Is she breathing now? How old is she?”

[MAN RESPONDS IN SPANISH]

“I don’t know what’s going on, let me start Police.”

“You can, I’ve got medical on the way already.

The fire department operator, according to Battalion Chief Doug Smith, dispatched medical personnel to the Elam Way address 34 seconds after he answered the call. Then after another 30 seconds, he phoned the division’s dial-up translation service. Battalion Chief Doug Smith.

“Our Columbus Fire dispatcher noticed that there was a large language barrier between the two of them so we have a language line that we go to and we call out to a paid service that helps us with interpretations,” Smith said. “So within a minute we had them on the line trying to get more information.”

These kinds of translation services are used by 911 centers around the country. The translator who helped with the Garcia call answered immediately but she asked the parents to wait as she took billing information from the fire department.

“Hurry up!”

“What’s our number? Hey sir, I’m going to get somebody on here that can help us with this language barrier.”

“May I just have your client ID please?”

“I’m looking for our client ID. Let’s see, Columbus Communications Agency ID is 112013.”

“Thank you. And what language please?”

“I believe it’s Spanish.”

[MAN YELLING]

“Sir! Sir! Sir! What language?”

“It’s Spanish! My daughter is dying better hurry up!”

“Uh sir, one moment please. May I have your personal code, please?”

“B-007.”

“Three zeros and a seven?”

“B as in ‘boy,’ 007.”

“Maybe she die, I don’t know.”

Again Doug Smith who oversees the Division of Fire’s 911 system.

“When we call them they need our agency number and our fire department ID number so that they can get the billing correct.

“Does that slow down response time?”

“Well obviously it’s going to take just a little bit of time,” Smith said. “As you can see it took probably less than 15 seconds to get that all squared away and she was also already talking to the gentleman while trying to gather some of that information so it seems like she was trying to multitask the best she could.”

The translator spoke to the stepfather and then to the mother for a few moments. But the couple stopped responding. They had taken the girl themselves to a nearby hospital where she was pronounced dead.

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