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Abstract

Introduction: This study is a subset of ongoing research and conversational analysis of recorded 911 calls into a California dispatch center from Spanish-speakers who requested language interpretation in communicating their emergencies. Findings reveal how each participant—callers, calltakers, and language interpreters—affects how emergencies were communicated and understood.

Objective: This unique study researched the existing procedure when non-English speakers who are facing an emergency and place a 911 call connect with mostly English-speaking dispatchers and are connected to a language interpreter to communicate. The analysis of their discourse sought to discover any areas of miscommunication or breakdown within the current process.

Methods: Each call was transcribed and its discourse systematically analyzed.  Several patterns of miscommunication emerged that led to unexpected and interesting results.

Results: The data indicate, first, that the callers studied describe emergencies in a uniquely indirect manner despite the need for directness during crises. Second, English-speaking dispatchers did not always actively engage or listen carefully during non-English calls while interpreters spoke with the caller. Third, the interpreters often affected source messages by adding, omitting, or modifying meaning, which impacted how the caller’s emergency was ultimately relayed back to the calltaker. The expectation of the interpreter to passively echo words back and forth between languages without altering meaning in any way was revealed as unrealistic.

Conclusion: Results from this analysis outlined how each participant had a great amount of communicative influence despite the language barrier. This research was the first of its kind to analyze how non-English speakers communicate during 911, and how dispatch centers handle these types of atypical calls. This research brings to the surface the need to reach out to the community through 911 education, as well as highlighting the obligation to revitalize dispatcher and interpreter training in this specific and ever-growing challenge for our industry.

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