Language Gets in the Way of Safety, ODPS Looks to Bridge Gap

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The floods near Findley last year provided an eye opening experience for Ohio Department of Public Safety. Director Henry Guzman said the department was unprepared for the cultural diversity of the area and the language barrier problems that arose when trying to help people.

“When the flooding hit northwest Ohio, while we knew that there was a large contingent of Latinos in that area and FEMA brought in employees that could facilitate in both English and Spanish, we uncovered that there was a large group of Asians and they were coming in for services and no one was there to facilitate with them. Had we known that on the front end we would have been prepared for it,” Guzman said.

Realizing that language barriers are a major problem when people are facing tragedies, the Department of Public Safety has decided to create a cultural competency initiative. Guzman says there needs to be more outreach to learn about the state’s growing diverse populations so that ODPS can provide more people with the proper safety services. In its first steps towards reaching this goal, ODPS hosted an information forum in Columbus today.

John Kennington works for the Division of Emergency Medical Services. He has been working with Columbus Fire Department to find ways to bridge the language gaps and came to the forum to learn what kind of language barriers are present.

“Those first few moments in an emergency call are the most critical and so we are trying to figure out ways to communicate either through saying it in a universal language, some other documentation either pictures or whatever so we can ascertain the seriousness of the situation,” he said.

Lieutenant David Sawyer of the Columbus Division of Fire said the department has been working extensively with the Somali community. Open dialogue between the two groups have led to Somalis acting as translators for the department and also writing safety brochures or pamphlets for their community. Sawyer said the fire department has not been as present in communities such as the Latino or Asian ones but this forum provides an opportunity to get to know those groups and for them to get to know him.

“Two weeks ago we had a fatality in the Latino community and now the Latino community wants to have some type of fire safety initiative to come over to them and if we have never been there before which in the past 30 years we have not been targeting that group and it’s the same with any diverse group. The fire division never targeted their fire safety information to that particular group so they did not know who to talk to,” Sawyer said.

Gianella Martinez, director of the Center for Latin Hope, says it is important for the Department of Safety to get to know the community so they can be prepared but it is also important for leaders in the different communities to teach each other what types of services are out there and how to use them.

“There are two faces. From our perspective, in ESL classes we teach people what words to use in the case of tragedy but for the other side; I know the city is working on teaching their people Spanish and having Latino people on their job so we can work together. We are in the first steps but I think from now to five years later we are going to be in good shape,” Martinez said.

More than 150 representatives of central Ohio’s diverse communities attended the forum.