‘A delay between life and death’: Latino forum highlights lack of bilingual dispatchers as one of many communication gaps in Garfield County
Garfield County’s emergency services operate with 21 people directly responsible for running dispatch but only two speak Spanish, a Garfield County official said to the county’s Latino Community Committee on Wednesday.
“But one isn’t very fluent,” said Tom Holman, Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority operations manager.
Instead, when Garfield County’s 911 dispatch center cannot directly communicate in Spanish, they use a third-party interpretation service.
Garfield County’s Latino population makes up roughly 29.3% of the community or nearly one third of its 61,685 residents, according to 2020 U.S. Census data.
Garfield County Emergency Communications also uses the language line an estimated 100-135 times per month.
“There’s so many questions and instructions, that if a dispatcher has to go through an interpreter, it dramatically slows down the process,” Holman said.
Sometimes, first responders or family members on scene have to translate Spanish to English.
“What happens is a household may have no one that speaks English, except for maybe a kid that’s eight or nine years old,” Holman said. “That kid ends up being the interpreter for that whole incident.”
Hiring more Spanish-speaking dispatchers is unlikely to happen overnight as fewer candidates apply for openings. Holman said the recruiting process in general — whether it’s Spanish speakers or not — has declined over the years.
“In years past when we’ve had openings, we would get sometimes 100 people to apply for a job,” he said. “In today’s environment, where we worked really hard and we advertised early, we still only got 43 applications for two open spots.”
Out of those 43 applicants, between 3-4 were Spanish speaking, Holman said. Recruiting is done through paid advertisements on social media and an online hiring network.
In addition, the county does not offer incentives for dispatch applicants with any “extra or an additional skill,” Holman said. This includes being bilingual.
Despite a lack of applicants, Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority Executive Director Carl Stephens said the 911 center generally has very few openings.
“We’ve been fully staffed for several years,” he said.
Latino Committee board member Yesenia Estrada offered that the county could perhaps reward or incentivize 911 call center applicants or operators who speak Spanish, which could bolster recruitment.
“Probably what’s most concerning to our Latino community, it’s a delay between life and death,” she said. “I think that’s definitely a skill that needs to be paid in order to get more applicants.”
“I don’t think that many bilingual folks will want to step into that job knowing that they’re going to be doing extra duties, with extra skills, without getting compensated.”
Latino Community Committee board member Paul Lazo, a Carbondale police officer, asked about ways the Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority Board of Directors could collect the funds necessary to possibly include incentives for bilingual applicants.
Lazo also emphasized the benefit of using live, Spanish-speaking dispatchers as opposed to a third-party language service.
Lazo said there are times during live situations he essentially bypasses Voiance, a 911 interpretation service, and asks questions in Spanish himself.
“Sometimes, Spanish-speaking calls through Voiance, it doesn’t matter when or where, translation is going to get lost,” he said.
Stephens said Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority Operations officials plan to have further discussions with the Latino community on how to bolster its bilingual services.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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