911 in Wichita can handle hundreds of languages

Police investigate an accident that killed a 2-year-old child in the 1700 block of S. Santa Fe.
Police investigate an accident that killed a 2-year-old child in the 1700 block of S. Santa Fe.

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Wichita, Kansas – Thursday evening a man called 911 in Wichita, fearing he had just run over a young boy. But the man spoke only Spanish.

“No problem,” says 911 services interim director Kim Pennington. “Call 911. We are equal opportunity. We can talk to anybody.”

Literally.

Sedgwick County 911 is plugged into a national language line.

“When we answer the phone the person will, generally, say what language they speak,” explains Pennington. “We turn back around and say, ‘Is there anybody there that speaks English?’ If there’s not we say police, fire or ambulance?”

And they get first responders out the door. Next, they three-way call the language line.

“They have operators there that translate for us,” says Pennington. “And they have more than 200 languages.”

The tragic case of the young boy this week who was run over did not end well. The boy died after he got to the hospital. But, neighbors say the response time for the ambulance was very fast.

“Yes, they got here quickly,” says Sandra, a neighbor. “Very fast. This was just so sad. But, yes, the ambulance was quick.”

Quick, in part, due to the language line.

“When we get a call and there is a language barrier, we do two things,” says Pennington. “First, we get responders on the way. We already have them on the way. Once we have a general idea of what service they need and a general location we start into the area. If it’s a land line phone, we send to the address. If it’s a cell phone, most carriers can pinpoint the location.”

Then it’s up to the language line specialists to fill in the blanks. Sedgwick County pays by the minute for the nationwide service. In the month of April it cost about $1,200 and it was primarily used for Spanish.

Other languages used for 911 calls in the month of April included Mandarin, Czech, Vietnamese and Laotian.

“The language line specialists have never been stumped,” says Pennington. “They have not failed us. Sometimes we are stumped, but that’s where the language line comes in.”

Pennington says the language line is also helpful for police officers responding to many different situations.

“And it also provides safety for our responders,” adds Pennington. “We can find out – are there weapons involved, is there an active disturbance going on, and give them more information as they respond so they take the right stuff with them.”

The language line has been in use in Wichita for more than 17 years.

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