Crossing the language barrier

By Jamie Thompson, FireRescue 1.com and Rachel Fretz, PoliceOne.com

Across the United States, the sound of Spanish is becoming increasingly familiar.


And while debates about language and immigration issues may rage, more and more emergency personnel are deciding to take a proactive approach to facing the issue – by learning the Spanish language.


QUICK GUIDE: Test your Spanish
From www.Spanish4Emergencies.com

la dirección (LAH dee-rehk-seeOHN) - the address

¿Ha pasado antes esto? (AH- pah-SAH-doh AHN-tehs EHS-toh) - Has this happened before?

¿Ha llamado antes? (AH yah-MAH-doh AHN-tehs) - Have you called before?

Voy a arrestarlo (VOHY AH ah-rreh-STAHR-loh) - I'm going to arrest you

Voy a registrarlo (VOHY AH reh-hee-STRAHR-loh) - I'm going to frisk you

Voy a esposarlo (VOHY AH eh-spoh-SAHR-loh) - I'm going to handcuff you

bolsa (BOHL-sah) - bag

botella (boh-TEH-yah) - bottle

armas (AHR-mahs) - weapons

cuchillo (koo-CHEE-yoh) - knife

arma de fuego (AHR-mah DEH FWEH-goh) - firearm

¿Es correcto esto? (EHS koh-RREHK-toh EH-stoh) - Is this correct?

¿Sabe hablar inglés? (SAH-beh AH-blahr een-GLEHS) - Do you know how to speak English?

¿Sabe qué hacer? (SAH-beh KEH AH-sehr) - Do you know what to do?

Brady Lewis, a 25-year-old firefighter from Anderson, Indiana, knows more than most the potential challenges emergency workers can face as a result of serving an area with a growing Hispanic population. He has also worked as a reserve police officer and emergency dispatcher, during which time he encountered the most language problems.


“I noticed while I worked as a police officer and dispatcher that I was starting to encounter more and more Spanish-speaking people,” he said.


The 25-year-old firefighter from Anderson, Indiana, has also worked as reserve police officer and emergency dispatcher in his hometown.


“One of the main areas I found problems was on traffic stops, especially when you have to ask them about things like vehicle registration or proof of insurance.


“Another was when they had to go to court. When we saw them there, they’d often not know what to do, or have the right documents because they didn’t speak English.


“I was having trouble communicating with some of them as I couldn’t speak any Spanish and they couldn’t speak English, so it was frustrating for everyone.”


In response, Lewis decided to try to learn Spanish.


But he soon realized there were few resources tailored for first responders; specifically, the words and phrases they would need in their fields.


“There didn’t seem to be anything out there that was really specific to police, fire or dispatch,” he said. “So, I started learning the Spanish language from various books and managed to teach myself the basics. Then, from a range of sources, I tried to find things that could be applied to police, fire or dispatch.”


Now, five years later, Lewis runs a website, Spanish4Emergencies.com , that features a range of online tools and learning products aimed specifically at emergency personnel.


Sites and services such as his are becoming increasingly popular.


“People are starting to recognize how important it is for police officers and firefighters to learn Spanish,” he said.


“It’s not something that is going to go away. If anything it’s going to be become even more important in future years for people to be able to communicate in Spanish. It’s an issue that really needs to be addressed.”


It’s not just existing emergency workers that are taking steps to learn Spanish or a second language. Departments across the country are increasingly giving preference to bi-lingual applicants.


Some training schools recommend applicants immediately attempt to learn a second language if they do not already do so. 


With about 40 million people of Hispanic origin currently in the United States, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Spanish is the obvious choice for many first responders. (Russian is the second-most requested training language for LE, followed by Indo-European and Arabic.)


Pictured: SpanishOnPatrol founders Kendal Knetemann, left, and Philipp Knetemann in Aurora, Colo. Their online LE Spanish-language program boasts 2,000 members from 45 U.S. states, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Another Web site that offers language training to first responders is Colorado-based SpanishOnPatrol.com.


The site originally only covered law enforcement phrases, but has now been expanded to offer learning tools for personnel in corrections, dispatch, wildland, and fire/EMS departments.  


“Obviously we have had a tremendous influx of Spanish speakers in America,” said co-founder Philipp Knetemann. “Our first responders have really had to grapple with responding to their needs.

“It is especially important in law enforcement. If an officer doesn’t understand what is being said, especially in a group situation, then their personal safety could really be compromised. SpanishOnPatrol boasts 2,000 members from100 police departments nationwide.


"Our course is designed to help officers deal with specific law enforcement situations such as DUI, traffic stops, field interviews, and domestic situations,"

Even a small Spanish vocabulary can make a big difference.

Knetemann talked about a Virginia officer who had taken the online SpanishOnPatrol course. “When he arrived at the scene of an accident, he able to really comfort a monolingual Spanish speaker who was hurt. He was able to calm him and down and relax him while they waited for EMS to arrive.”


About 100 police departments across the United States have signed up for police-oriented programs with the organization.

The surge in immigration over the past few years has made Hispanics the largest minority group in the country.

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