Busting communication barriers


Increasingly, Federal Way’s police officers are called to a scene where they can’t easily communicate with the people involved because of language barriers.

Often the first responders to an emergency, police officers must quickly determine what happened as well as identify potential victims and possible suspects.

There are 105 different languages spoken by families in the Federal Way area. Emergency responders such as police and firefighters routinely deal with people who aren’t English proficient.

The most common non-English language spoken in Federal Way is Spanish, followed by Russian and Korean.

Many Federal Way officers have learned enough basic Spanish to communicate if necessary, said patrol officer Catriona Siver.

“Some of the officers have picked up little catch phrases,” she said.

Officers also carry cards with Spanish greetings on them that they can refer to if necessary.

“I know enough Spanish to get the basic information,” Siver said.

And there are a handful of bilingual officers and police department staff who are available to assist.

Stacy Flores, Federal Way Police Department public information officer, said she uses her Spanish-speaking skills almost every day in her duties. She regularly interprets for officers or staff, and she uses her Spanish skills when hosting crime prevention meetings in Federal Way neighborhoods.

When attending meetings with the Korean population, Flores enlists the help of the city Korean community liaison, who works in City Hall upstairs from the police department.

There are also police department employees who speak Russian, Samoan and other languages. While bilingual officers are helpful, oftentimes they are busy on other calls when interpretation is needed.

Priceless resources:

In many cities, such as San Diego, one of the most culturally diverse communities in the nation, the police department utilizes a volunteer interpreter program. Volunteers log thousands of hours of service each year and respond to calls including homicides, robberies, serious injuries and domestic violence.

In Federal Way, the most commonly used police resource for language interpretation is the Language Line through Valley Communications dispatch. If officers need an interpreter, they can call dispatch and get connected to an interpreter in almost any language, 24 hours a day.

The Language Line, a company based out of California, employs interpreters who speak 170 different languages. For a fee, they offer over-the-phone interpretation services to various businesses and government agencies.

The only flaw in the system is that it can be time-consuming, Flores said.

Siver estimates that she uses the Language Line about once a month. Often, if a person has limited English skills, there is a friend or family member around that can help interpret, she said.

During routine traffic stops, it is generally not difficult to convey the appropriate information to drivers, Siver said. At times, Siver will point to her radar device displaying the speed and point to a speed limit sign. The drivers understand.

“Just from gesturing a little bit here and there, you can show them,” she said. “Most of the people, they know they’ve done something.”

Traffic tickets also have a box where the driver can check to request an interpreter in court.

When investigating domestic violence cases or major crimes, an interpreter is often needed, Siver said.

“Sometimes we can’t use family members for interviewing, especially if it’s a suspect,” she said.

“When dealing with a crime we’re investigating, we want to use someone who’s unbiased,” Flores added.

When arresting a suspect with limited English skills, Siver said she is careful to be sure the suspect understands their Miranda rights. She hands them a card with Miranda rights written on it and has them initial each line as the interpreter reads it to them.

Relying on children:

When responding to an emergency scene, firefighters often look to children for help interpreting when necessary, said South King Fire and Rescue spokeswoman Kendra Kay.

“It can be difficult communicating what is wrong, but we really do rely on the children in the families,” Kay said. “(Firefighters) are going to try to find a family member that can translate for them and it often is going to be the children.”

Kay estimates that firefighters at South King Fire and Rescue, which serves Federal Way and Des Moines, deal with language barriers every day in their jobs.

“It does probably happen daily, maybe not with each and every crew, but I imagine somewhere within the district,” she said.

The fire department hosts several outreach activities in non-emergency situations to create relationships with diverse communities. At fire prevention and education events, interpreters are often present.

Language barriers haven’t impeded firefighters doing their jobs, Kay said.

“I don’t think any patient care has been compromised because of language barriers,” she said. “We still get the job done and get the patients the care they need and get them to the hospital.”

At Valley Communications, which dispatches 911 calls for 26 different local agencies including Federal Way, the Language Line is a resource that is used daily, said supervisor Vonnie Mayer.

“I would say probably in one hour out of 20 calls we get to 911, at least five or six are language barrier,” Mayer said.

The dispatchers’ first step is to determine whether there is an emergency. Usually screaming or distressed tones of voice in any language indicate the extent of the emergency, Mayer said. The dispatcher will try to determine whether fire or police response is needed and the location of the emergency.

“Usually if somebody (speaks) English as a second language they can get that information to us,” Mayer said.

Dispatchers aim to get the appropriate emergency responders en route within 30 seconds. Then, if an interpreter is needed to gather further information, they call the Language Line. Within 30 seconds to two minutes, an interpreter of the appropriate language is on the line, Mayer said.

“It’s very efficient. The bank of languages they have available to us is amazing,” she said.

Cultural hurdles:

In addition to language barriers, there are some other challenges for emergency responders dealing with a diverse population. Some Asian families don’t allow anyone to wear shoes into their homes, even in an emergency. And some immigrant populations are not typically warm or friendly to police.

Federal Way police chief Brian Wilson aims to hire a diverse staff to work with some of these cultural differences, Flores said. Officers also receive cultural and diversity education as part of their regular training.

Another concern that police officers face is unwillingness to cooperate from some immigrant communities who are fearful of United States Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials.

One point the chief is working to make to immigrant communities is that the police are not necessarily concerned with a person’s immigration status, Flores said.

If a person is a victim or a witness to a crime, they should not be fearful of coming forward if they are a non-American citizen, she said.

“The officer’s going to handle the incident at hand, not their immigration status or their citizenship,” Flores said.

Siver said she is unlikely to ask about a person’s immigration status during a routine traffic stop.

“There’s a limited scope in which you can contact a person during a traffic stop,” she said. “You’re not going to pry into their alien status.”

Flores added that illegal immigrants who have broken the law won’t get away easily. If a person who is a non-American citizen is found to have committed a crime, police will be quick to inform U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Contact Margo Horner: or (253) 925-5565.

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