Garfield County emergency services work with 21 people directly responsible for handling the dispatch, but only two speak Spanish, a Garfield County official told the county’s Latino Community Committee on Wednesday.
“But you’re not very fluent,” said Tom Holman, operations manager for the Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority.
When the Garfield County 911 dispatch center cannot communicate directly in Spanish, they use a third-party interpreter service instead.
According to data from the 2020 United States Census, Garfield County’s Latino population makes up approximately 29.3% of the community, or nearly one-third of the 61,685 residents.
Garfield County Emergency Communications also uses the voice line an estimated 100-135 times per month.
“There are so many questions and instructions that if a dispatcher has to bring in an interpreter, it slows down the process dramatically,” Holman said.
Sometimes first responders or family members on site need to translate Spanish into English.
“What happens is that a household might not have anyone who speaks English, except maybe a kid who’s eight or nine years old,” Holman said. “This boy ends up being the interpreter for this whole incident.”
More Spanish-speaking dispatchers are unlikely to be hired overnight as fewer candidates apply for open positions. Holman said the recruiting process in general — whether Spanish-speaking or not — has declined over the years.
“In the past few years, when we had vacancies, we sometimes got 100 people applying for a position,” he said. “In today’s environment where we worked very hard and advertised early, we still only received 43 applications for two open positions.”
Of those 43 applicants, between 3 and 4 spoke Spanish, Holman said. Recruitment is done through paid ads on social media and through an online recruitment network.
Additionally, the county does not incentivize sending applicants with “additional or additional skills,” Holman said. This also includes bilingualism.
Despite the lack of applicants, Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority executive director Carl Stephens said the 911 center generally has very few open positions.
“We’ve been fully staffed for several years,” he said.
Latino Committee board member Yesenia Estrada suggested that the county could potentially reward or encourage 911 call center applicants or operators who speak Spanish, which could boost recruitment.
“What probably worries our Latino community most is the delay between life and death,” she said. “I think that’s definitely a skill that needs to be paid for in order to get more applicants.”
“I don’t think many bilingual people want to get into this job knowing that they will be doing additional tasks with additional skills without being paid for it.”
Paul Lazo, board member of the Latino Community Committee, a Carbondale police officer, asked about ways the Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority board could raise the funds needed to potentially include incentives for bilingual applicants.
Lazo also emphasized the benefit of using live Spanish-speaking dispatchers as opposed to a third-party language service.
Lazo said that in live situations, there are times when he essentially bypasses Voiance, a 911 translation service, and asks questions in Spanish himself.
“Sometimes when making a Spanish-language call through Voiance, no matter when or where, the translation gets lost,” he said.
Stephens said Garfield County Emergency Communications Department officials plan to hold further discussions with the Latino community about how to strengthen their bilingual services.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or [email protected]