Special Report: Lack of Spanish-speaking first responders creates challenges

In Lane County nearly 10 percent of the total population speak Spanish as their first language. Only a few work for Lane County emergency agencies.

Posted: Jul 25, 2019 6:10 PM
Updated: May 3, 2021 11:59 AM

EUGENE, Ore. -- You hear it all the time: If you’d like to continue this call in Spanish, press 2… press 8… press #.

But what if Spanish isn’t an option? In Lane County that’s the scary reality for some people who call 911 -- a reality that can cause delays, confusion and even death.

Alexis Levitt is a veteran dispatcher at Central Lane 911 and said only one person at the call center speaks fluent Spanish.

"There’s definitely a danger in that first few seconds," said Levitt. "When you can’t really get the nature of the emergency from that person because you may lose that caller.”

In Lane County nearly 10% of the total population speaks Spanish as their first language. To serve them the county pays AT&T to provide an outside “language line,” which can translate many languages into English and vice versa, but Levitt said the translation process can cause dangerous delays.

"When you have a language barrier, you can’t necessarily get that information up front," Levitt said. "You do have that lag where you’re waiting to get someone to tell you that and if you lose a caller in that interim, you are just left figuring our where they are based on the phone location.”

For first responders who show up on the scene of a fire or accident -- the challenges can be even greater. Captain Rod Cullen of Eugene Springfield Fire said rapid communication is vital.

"We’ll show up to a scene, they’re Spanish speaking, they’re shy, they’re confused," said Cullen. "Being able to speak in their native language, it helps -- it calms them down. I think it’s reassuring."

So how many Eugene Springfield firefighters speak fluent Spanish? Three. 

And it’s not only firefighters who struggle to communicate with Spanish speakers. Roberto Rios is one of only six officers at the Eugene Police Department who speak fluent Spanish.

"I was 7 years old, and I said to myself that’s exactly what I want to do,“ said Rios.

He said he uses his Spanish every other day and that oftentimes he works as a translator for other police officers. Rios said the face-to-face interaction with our Spanish-speaking neighbors is critical.

"A lot of information is lost through translation over the phone, so face-to-face is helpful, speaking to someone in their native language,” said Rios.

What are local agencies doing to improve communications? For starters, the city of Eugene offers a 5% bonus for Spanish-speaking police officers who can prove their proficiency.

But in the meantime, officers like Roberto Rios are rare exceptions. They patrol the streets, day and night.

"I tell (Spanish speakers), 'Don’t be afraid. We are there to help,'” said Rios. 

Not only to protect and serve pero proteger y servir.

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