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Demand for Bilingual 911 Services Growing

While Texas continues its demographic march into diversity, only one city — El Paso — requires its 911 emergency call takers to be fluent in English and Spanish. Other cities are striving to keep up with the need to handle emergency calls in a wide range of languages.

Downtown El Paso at night.

When El Pasoans in distress dial 911, they can ask for help in English, Spanish or both. To better serve the predominantly Hispanic region, the city has required its 911 call-takers to understand — and clearly and concisely speak — both languages since 1989.

“When we answer the phone, we need to be able to understand what the emergency is and ask the appropriate questions to get them the help they need," said Monica Puga, manager of human resources for the city's fire department.

In an increasingly diverse state that is already majority-minority, El Paso’s bilingual requirement is apparently unique.

State officials, 911 organizations and other stakeholders were unable to identify another Texas city or county that requires call takers to be fluent in English and Spanish. But as the state’s demographics lean toward a multi-language speaking population, some big cities are attempting to manage an increased demand for bilingual 911 call-takers.

The highest need is likely found along the border and in urban cores like Houston and Dallas with high rates of foreign-born immigrants unlikely to be fluent English speakers, said state demographer Lloyd Potter.

Harris County — home to Houston — and Dallas County have seen explosive Hispanic population growth in the last five years. But the two urban cores are also home to large foreign-born populations that primarily speak foreign languages other than Spanish.

As of 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 25 percent of Harris County’s population was foreign-born. Of those, 61 percent spoke English less than “very well.”

An estimated 23 percent of Dallas County's population was foreign-born in 2013, and 63 percent of that population spoke English less than “very well.”

“You have to have [bilingual 911 call-takers] because a large percentage of people that are going to be calling aren’t going to be able to communicate effectively in English,” Potter said.

But adequately staffing 911 call centers after background investigations, testing and vetting is already a challenge, let alone when bilingual requirements are added, said Beth English, president of the Texas chapter of the National Emergency Number Association.

Though the state has been “striving for years” to increase its number of bilingual emergency operators, the increasing demand for Spanish-speaking 911 call-takers is much easier to meet along the border, English added.

“In places like El Paso, South Texas and areas like that, it may be a little easier because there is a wider applicant base of people that are bilingual,” English said.

Though the state does not track how many bilingual 911 call-takers work at emergency centers, the Houston Emergency Center and Dallas Police Department say they are actively recruiting Spanish speakers.

Though it’s not a hiring requirement, Joe Laud, administration manager for the Houston Emergency Center, said most of his emergency telecommunicators, who answer about 9,000 calls a day, are bilingual.

In Dallas, the police department encourages bilingual applicants, and they are “definitely preferred,” but bilingual skills are not mandatory, said Sgt. Alejandro Coss.

Having bilingual emergency responders on hand is important, Coss said, likening the advantages to the “extremely beneficial” connection that bilingual patrol officers can make with individuals during a moment of crisis.

In those moments of crisis, emergency call centers without bilingual telecommunicators rely on Language Line, a round-the-clock, multi-language translation service that charges counties and cities by the minute.

Emergency assistance providers say it takes about 30 to 40 seconds for an English-speaking 911 operator to connect with a Language Line interpreter or translator on a three-way line with the caller.

Though English-speaking emergency call-takers have to pinpoint what foreign language a caller may be speaking, the 911 organizations say the service works well despite the many languages spoken by Texas' Asian-born population, which has more than doubled in recent years.

With booming Asian immigrant populations in the Houston and Dallas areas, emergency telecommunicators there increasingly use Language Line to respond to calls from residents who speak Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, among many other languages.

In the Rio Grande Valley, where most 911 call-takers are bilingual, they often use the translation service to assist Canadian “Winter Texans”  — elderly individuals who seek the warm temperatures of the border during the winter months — who speak French, according to Sergio Castro, 911 director of the Lower Rio Grande Development Council.

But in light of increasing demand for bilingual 911 operators, the Texas Telecommunicator Emergency Response Taskforce — a network of back-up emergency telecommunicators — is working to beef up its ability to provide bilingual assistance to emergency centers and call centers during natural disasters or other periods during which emergency calls may spike.

“Who does 911 call when 911 needs help too?” said Laura Litzerman, a regional coordinator for the task force. The emergency task force is planning training sessions for bilingual telecommunicators in some parts of South Texas in case an emergency center in another part of the state that lacks bilingual staff needs help.

With a growing Hispanic population, the goal, Litzerman said, is to easily dispatch bilingual emergency telecommunicators into other regions of the state “so that they would be trained and be able to assist in something like this.”

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