Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Language barrier caused 911 mix-up

Police, ambulance dispatched to fire

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEWPORT - When a Hispanic resident called 911 Monday morning and asked for the fire department, what the caller got was a police cruiser and an ambulance.

The resident couldn't speak English, and the dispatcher couldn't speak Spanish.

The dispatchers knew the caller needed help, said Newport Fire Chief Larry Atwell - they just didn't know what kind of help. Police and emergency medical services were dispatched to the scene, but not a fire truck.

The fire department wasn't called until other emergency personnel arrived and discovered the flames.

Even when firefighters arrived, emergency personnel still couldn't communicate with the residents of the burning building. Atwell said important information, such as whether everyone was out safely, was communicated through impromptu sign language.

Atwell said the fire department has no one who can speak fluent Spanish.

"It has shown us we need to find someone we can lean on that speaks Spanish," said Atwell. "I'm going to find a solution to this problem."

The number of Mexican immigrants has been increasing in Northern Kentucky for several years. Hispanics make up 1.70 percent of Newport's 17,048 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

It was unclear how much of a delay the language barrier caused in getting firefighters to the scene. Atwell described it as "slight."

The interim director of the dispatch center that answers all 911 calls made in Campbell County did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The Hispanic family that called the dispatch center couldn't be located for comment. Firefighters said 12 residents of the building received assistance from the Red Cross, but officials with the aid agency said they couldn't locate the person who placed the call.

No one was injured in the blaze, which was reported at 5:20 a.m. Monday. Atwell said the two-story frame building at 410 W. 12th St. was heavily damaged.

Newport was assisted by Bellevue-Dayton and Southgate fire departments. It took 23 personnel to fight the blaze that was under control by 6:20 a.m.

The cause of the fire had not been determined as of Monday night.


E-mail jhannah@enquirer.com

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