The Literary Department

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Kitsap has multilingual 911, but nobody's using it

by Jason Truesdell
NW Asian Weekly
January 29, 1994

Emergency 911 services in Kitsap County just crossed the language barrier for many immigrants and visitors.

Recently, Kitsap County 911 added multilingual translation services provided by AT&T.

The service is available 24 hours a day, and operators can handle more than 140 languages.

In its first few weeks, however, the system has not been used much.

In a couple of non-emergency cases, police in the field needed to complete some paper-shuffling tasks that involved non-English speakers.

They were patched through to AT&T translators.

"We have not had a high demand [for translation services] over the last several years resulting from 911 calls, although there have been some," said Ron McAffee, directory of Kitsap County central communications.

The department based the need for the service on the value of human life.

"We came to the determination that one phone call is enough. The cost of that is really fairly cheap for what it could provide us," McAffee said.

The translation service could be particularly helpful in determining what emergency services are needed, which could conserve resources.

In one instance, an Asian woman who could not speak much English called emergency services, and they got the impression there was a fire. The staff didn't know what was happening, so they dispatched everyone.

"It turned out to be just an unwanted person in the restaurant," said Hazel Bellinger, one of the supervisors for Kitsap County central communications.

Sometimes, the caller's tone dictates what dispatchers decide to do before sending out police, fire and ambulance.

"Chances are that if someone is very excited, we will not wait for translation services," McAffee said.

King County Emergency 911 already offers the translation services.

"We've been doing that for quite some time," said Marlys Davis, King County E-911 program manager.

She estimated that it had been offered countywide for at least 2 1/2 years.

King County also is adding automatic detection of TDD device transmissions over 911, which will save time when dealing with hearing-impaired callers.

Currently, King County 911 can deal with calls from these devices, but having equipment that automatically detects the machines is new to them, Davis said.

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