911 Language Line

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911 Language Line one of many tools for law enforcement, dispatch

By Gunnar Olson golson@faribault.com   Feb 1, 2017

For Rice County’s English-speaking residents, communicating with one of the 21 dispatchers at the Rice-Steele 911 Center is not something to worry about. Dial 9-1-1 and most know help will soon be on the way. For non-English-speaking, it may not always be so easy. But thanks to a state contract with Language Line Solutions, which has been around for 34 years, the same can be said for people of all languages.

At any moment, four dispatchers are seated at their desks in the Rice-Steele 911 Center in the Government Services Center in Owatonna, ready to field calls from across the two counties and send emergency services to whomever is in need.

In 2016, the Rice-Steele 911 Center fielded 143,171 calls. Of those, 108 were transferred to the Language Line. While a small percentage, in an emergency situation, it can make all the difference.

“The Language Line is very helpful to us,” said Rice-Steele 911 Center Director, Jill Bondhus. “It can help us determine the location of emergencies as well as the nature of the problem.”

Bondhus is one of 104 dispatch directors in the state of Minnesota who rely on the line, which assists non-English-speaking callers with their 911 calls.

“It’s key for public safety,” said Rice County Sheriff, Troy Dunn, about the Language Line’s utility. “It’s important for communicating with all of our constituents and residents. You have not only those in your community, but also people traveling through here.”

When one of those passersby or a residents calls, and they’re not an English speaker, the 911 dispatcher asks the caller to hold for a translator. From there, the dispatcher transfers the call over to a dedicated, pre-programmed number for the Language Line. Upon connection,
the caller can select from a menu of four choices for the most frequently requested languages in their state. In Minnesota, Spanish and Somali are both pre-programmed.
If the language needed is not one of the four, the caller can reach an operator who will assist them in accessing their language.

Language Line Solutions is based in California, but the interpreters Rice County callers connect with can be located remotely across the country and simply have to log in to begin their shifts.

The option was used 5,000 times by Minnesota callers last year, according to Dana Walberg, director of Minnesota’s Emergency Communication Network. On average, during those 5,000 calls, the caller was connected with their spoken language in less than 15 seconds.

The service is essential for places like Rice and Steele counties, where the dispatchers are predominantly English speakers. It does, however, need to be paid for.

The state of Minnesota 911 program office pays for the service by the call. The payments are made by funds collected through the statewide 911 service fee.

This service, while intended for the general public, serves a law enforcement function as well.

Faribault Police Chief, Andy Bohlen, and his department have a number of ways to connect Faribault’s citizens to translator services, and they appreciate the fact that they can always lean on the Language Line, even if his officers don’t use it all too often. Bohlen said his department uses interpreters and the linguistic skills of his own staff while working in the field.

“We have in-person translators we can use for common ones like Spanish, but to find somebody that speaks Russian, it’s a key thing that we need,” added Sheriff Dunn of his office’s utilization of the tool.

One of the most effective technologies Bohlen’s staff utilizes is Stratus, which is a wireless service that provides a real-time live link to an interpreter on a tablet.

“We have different options out there and we feel that if a live interpreter isn’t available, then we can use Stratus, or we can use the Language Line,” he said.

In the essential service of emergency dispatch, every second, every word and every call counts.