FORT VALLEY, Georgia – Every day, emergency responders and law enforcement officers nationwide help non-English-speaking people whose lives might be in immediate danger. The job is particularly challenging for small agencies in the South, which has seen a recent influx of Hispanic residents.
Many dispatchers and officers are going out of their way to learn Spanish and departments are recruiting bilingual employees and buying translating technology as they adapt to changing demographics.
"What's that word?" asks Peach County Deputy Sheriff Shane Broome, looking disconsolately at his "Survival Spanish" textbook.
Prodded by classmates — all public safety officers from central Georgia — Broome reads aloud "a la izquierda," or "to the left." Then his teacher continues around the room, having the two dozen students repeat basic commands in Spanish.
"It's been a big problem," Broome said later of his inability to speak with the many Hispanics who don't speak English that he stops while patrolling Interstate 75. "It's hard to even know if they're even able to drive. I'd try to take the one or two words I know — I know driver's license, "licencia" — and sign it out."
He hopes the traffic stops will go smoother after a three-day class offered by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, especially since he plans to keep his textbook — with its translations for everything from "windshield wiper" to "drop that weapon" — in his patrol car.
It all starts at 911 centers. Over the last two years, there's been increasing demand nationwide for on-the-phone interpreters such as those provided by Monterey, Calif.-based Language Line Services. Spanish is the most requested language.
When a non-English speaker dials 911, the dispatcher gets a live interpreter who, for about $1.65 a minute, holds a three-way conversation to assess the emergency. Most are straightforward police or medical calls, such as burglaries and heart attacks, but interpreters are especially useful in breaking through cultural barriers in cases such as domestic violence, said Danyune Geertsen, a company interpreter.
"A person speaking Spanish on every shift would be a dream come true," said Mary-Anne Eaton, E911 director in Tift County in southern Georgia, home to thousands of immigrants who pick peanuts, peaches and cotton in the area's fields. Of her 27 dispatchers, only one speaks Spanish.
Past the initial call, things get dicier for emergency responders.
"It gets real hard to deal with because ... we don't know what the problem is beyond what we see," said Dennis Garrett, a firefighter from Houston County who attended the class in neighboring Peach County.
With increasing pressure on police to help enforce immigration laws, tensions between immigrants and officers run high and the language barrier hurts both.
In border states like Arizona, long accustomed to a strong Hispanic presence, some agencies resent the added pressure of learning a new language.
"I'm not going to train my officers to speak Spanish when the illegals are in this country," said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has offered inmates English classes.
But most officers are trying to understand and make themselves understood. In northern Georgia, where the carpet industry had attracted thousands of immigrants, State Patrol Lt. Kermit Stokes outfitted his troopers with a $850 handheld device that translates commands in various languages.
"Once the person realizes what the device is, they're excited and relieved there's a way to communicate," Stokes said.
Many officers say they're happy to take classes that cover basic vocabulary and cultural mores, like not throwing out the word "amigo" to Hispanics stopped for traffic violations.
"I don't mind trying to learn to understand them because I have the opportunity," said Broome, the sheriff's deputy. "They don't have a class to go to, but you know what, they live here."