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“Heart stopped, Spanish interpreter.”

This is how Dr. Comilla Sasson, an emergency physician at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, encourages limited-English proficient (LEP) cardiac arrest victims and their families to begin a 911 call.1 Sasson and her colleagues have noted that minority and LEP patients are more likely to suffer heart attacks outside of hospitals, less likely to call emergency services, and less likely to receive CPR from a bystander.2 Add to this dangerous equation the time it takes, however brief, to secure a telephonic translator when someone does call for help, and the results can be downright deadly. In an emergency, every second counts.

Nearly nine percent of the U.S. population speak English “less than very well,”3 a fact that—in emergency situations—puts them at significant risk. Memorizing key phrases, as in the example above, can save valuable time and help emergency operators direct calls more efficiently, but it is not a sustainable solution. We cannot reasonably expect to educate more than 25 million LEP U.S. residents with the essential English vocabulary required in any potential emergency situation. Instead, we need to continue building a strong nationwide network of bilingual emergency workers who are able to communicate in the languages most used in their communities.

When emergency response professionals speak the languages of victims and their families, they are able to provide life-saving services faster, more accurately, and with greater success.

A Call for Bilingual First Responders

Fear. Panic. Frustration. Helplessness. For many LEP individuals, facing an emergency situation without the means to explain critical details like medical symptoms or the location of an incident is equally traumatic as the emergency itself. Ann Grove, a case manager and site supervisor at Iowa’s Cedar Valley Refugee Newcomer Services, notes: “For a mother to feel powerless to explain what’s going on with her child is a scary, scary thing.”4

In the absence of being able to speak a patient’s home language, first responders use a variety of technology and material tools to quickly assess emergency situations and begin providing service. Some such resources include training booklets, picture flashcards, interactive mobile apps, and live telephonic interpreter services. Costly for local departments and never as accurate as a conversation conducted in a common language, these tools are a helpful alternative but cannot replace the presence of a bilingual first responder.

Emergency Response Roles Requiring Language Skills

Emergency response professionals and other first responders hail from a wide variety of fields, each specializing in managing a different type of crisis. So what specific jobs are included in this sector? The U.S. First Responders Association suggests a comprehensive list of possible roles, embracing the idea that a first responder is “any individual who runs toward an event rather than away.”5

The White House’s Homeland Security Presidential Directive narrows in more closely on the sector, formally defining first responders as:

“those individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment, including emergency response providers […], as well as emergency management, public health, clinical care, public works, and other skilled support personnel (such as equipment operators) that provide immediate support services during prevention, response, and recovery operations."6

Within this group, emergency response providers can be further defined as:

“Federal, State, and local governmental and nongovernmental emergency public safety, fire, law enforcement, emergency response, emergency medical (including hospital emergency facilities), and related personnel, agencies, and authorities.”7

Proficiency in a language other than English enhances performance in any emergency response position, in any of the diverse communities around our country. Some roles which regularly seek bilingual team members include:

Emergency Telecommunications Staff

Dispatchers and emergency coordinators are the first line of communication between those in need and the appropriate team of emergency professionals sent to the scene (EMS, Fire, or Police). Relying on even temperaments and sharp language skills, they collect vital information to better inform teams in the field. Some cities, like El Paso, TX, require 911 call-takers to be bilingual.

Emergency Medical Service (EMS) Provider

EMS workers are organized by their level of education and their responsibilities toward patients. The most common type of EMS provider is the EMT, or Emergency Medical Technician. EMTs complete basic coursework and provide medical care that—for the most part—does not involve breaking the skin, such as administering CPR. By contrast, paramedics build on their EMT training with up to 1,800 hours of education and are authorized to perform more advanced emergency medical treatments.8 Both types of EMS professionals rely on direct and accurate communication with patients and their families to understand the situation at hand and be able to act quickly.

See Sector Profile: Health Care


There are currently more than one million U.S. firefighters, 31 percent of whom are career professionals.9 Most fire departments also provide either basic or advanced emergency medical services in addition to fire-related expertise (including taking up to 70 percent of emergency medical response calls); for this reason, the majority of departments now require applicants to complete EMT certification.10 Whether they are putting out a fire or providing medical assistance, firefighters use language skills to get the facts as quickly as they can so they can focus on saving lives. In fact, language skills are so integral to this role that some Southern California departments require candidates to demonstrate fluency in a second language even before taking their entry-level firefighter test.11

Police Officer

Bilingual police officers are enormously in demand, prompting cities across the nation to recruit officers who speak the languages most used in their communities. In New York City, where over 200 languages are spoken each day, the NYPD is proficient in 75 languages—including multiple Chinese dialects, Hebrew, Polish, Turkish, and Urdu.

See Sector Profile: Law Enforcement

Disaster Relief Worker

These first responders react to natural disasters, wars, or outbreaks of disease in the United States and abroad. Humanitarian work requires good judgement and some prior experience, as it often takes place under adverse conditions and with limited resources. In addition to language skills, a degree of cultural sensitivity—including awareness of politics, local customs, and religious beliefs—helps relief workers to navigate difficult situations with tact and empathy.

How Do I Get Started?

Which language should you be learning for the most meaningful impact on your future career as an emergency response professional?

As the second most widely spoken language in the United States, Spanish is always in demand no matter your metropolitan area. That said, almost 23 million U.S. residents speak a language other than English or Spanish at home: this leaves a lot of communication needs to be met.12 Virtually any language you invest in learning will be a service to your future colleagues and your community.

Talk of the Town: Language needs depend greatly on the demographics of your specific local community… and they may surprise you!

Once you’ve identified which language you’d like to learn, here are some other tips for kick-starting a career in the emergency response sector:

  • Technical training and certification requirements vary by state and branch of emergency response, so be sure to confirm what you’ll need to complete for your area.
  • University degrees are not always required but give candidates a definite competitive edge. Some popular majors include criminal justice, emergency management, psychology, computer science, and modern languages.
  • Internships and volunteer experiences are a great way to get on-the-ground training while putting your language skills to the test. Inquire about opportunities at your local police station, fire department, or ambulance service.

Additional Resources

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