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Escambia County emergency responders address need to serve foreign language speakers

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Escambia County Sheriff's Office
Spanish speaking ESCO staff member, Alejandra Duda, delivers information at the agency's first Spanish-English press conference.

Emergency responders in Escambia County are working to diversify their efforts by reaching out to residents in Spanish.

The kidnapping of an 11-year-old Mexican girl prompted Escambia County Sheriff Chip Simmons to hold the departments first-ever press conference in Spanish and English earlier this month. Alejandra Duda, a staff member, assisted the sheriff in interpreting important details of the case Spanish in hopes of reaching the Latino community. The girl was found safe within a few hours and the suspect’s extradition from Texas is being progressed.

Northwest Florida has experienced a growth of Spanish speaking residents in the past two decades, but this is the first time the sheriff’s office and other public safety agencies are acting on the need to provide information in both languages.

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Grace McCaffery
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WUWF Public Media
Miguel Angel Bueno talking to emergency officials about reaching out to Spanish-speaking residents.

In June, Escambia County emergency manager, Travis Tompkins hosted a Spanish language hurricane preparedness community workshop. Partnering Pensacola’s Spanish language newspaper, La Costa Latina, Spanish speakers were invited to the county’s emergency operation center to learn about ways to prepare for hurricanes and learn what to expect during a local disaster activation.

Miguel Angel Bueno attended the workshop with his daughter.

Bueno was an emergency responder in his native Colombia. There, he was a physician and worked in rescue operations. In his community of Palmira, Valle de Cauca, Bueno says they experienced flooding and earthquakes, but hurricanes are new to him.

Here in the U.S., Bueno works in the construction field as a painter and modeler. He says he worries the Latino community will be in big trouble a disaster occurs.

“Most people here are mostly focused on work and earning money to send home,” Bueno said. “Few are interested in emergency issues. They don’t talk about preparing for emergencies or worry about helping others. They don’t realize that an emergency can happen to any of us no matter who we are.”

Bueno was pleased to learn of the disaster preparedness workshop, but is eager to see more to prepare Spanish speakers for disasters such as hurricanes.

“In Colombia, we organize more people from the community to get involved which gets people in the mindset to prepare,” he said.

In Colombia Bueno said, officials work with youth to educate and recruit more preparedness conscious residents. He said young people are more focused on the mission and willing to put in more time to do things like walk through neighborhoods to talk to people, while adults are more occupied by their jobs.

The U.S. Census reports an increase of the Hispanic/Latino population in Escambia County from nearly 14,000 in 2010 to more than 18,700 in 2019. The community has more than doubled since 2000. It’s only a portion of Escambia County’s population, which is approximately 322,000. But, caring for the safety of nearly 19,000 people can have a considerable impact on first responders. The increase has been noticed by the county’s 911 dispatchers.

Andrew Hamilton is the emergency communications chief at Escambia County Public Safety. He says he has seen a steady increase in foreign language calls to 911 over the last few years, calls are predominantly from Spanish speakers but there are also Mandarin and Vietnamese callers. He says they get as many as four or five emergency calls from Spanish speakers per week.

911 calls from foreign language callers are handled though Language Line Solutions. The company provides interpreter services for more than 240 languages 24/7. Their website says they can connect an interpreter via audio or video within 30 seconds.

During a call, the interpreter verifies the address and stays on the line with the caller till help arrives. The emergency management computerized mapping system can pinpoint the address from where the call is being made.

Escambia County emergency dispatch services currently have no foreign language speakers on staff, but Hamilton says they are hiring and hopes to hear from multilingual applicants soon.

Grace McCaffery is the owner and founder of La Costa Latina Newspaper