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911 dispatchers handling more foreign-language calls
Translation company has 5,000 interpreters
Operations Manager at 911/Central Communications Leigh Stallings-Jarrell stands at one of the call terminals Thursday afternoon.

Call taker John Hanes recognized the sounds on the other end of his telephone line, even if he didn't know the words being spoken.

The person had dialed 911 with an emergency. And now he couldn't explain what was happening to Hanes, who pictured his Navy service in the Philippines.

"That's where I ran into Mandarin," Hanes said.

A chart kept on his desk explains how exactly to say "please hold," "please hold for an interpreter," and "please do not hang up" in dozens of languages.

Hanes verbalized one of the phrases, and he stayed on the line as he transferred the call to Monterey, Calif. That's where Language Line Services receives calls from Hall County's emergency dispatchers who need an interpreter — now.

A three-way conversation soon began with someone trained to handle Mandarin voices expressing urgency.

The details of the emergency were explained to Hanes who updated the police, fire and EMTs he directed to the scene just in case.

"It's very frustrating, especially when it's a medical situation," Hanes said, describing the helplessness a call taker feels when panicked voices speak in ways they can't understand. "But (the interpreters) are very, very helpful, and they are trained."

Leigh Stallings-Jarrell, operations manager for Hall County's 911/Central Communications, estimates 10-15 calls a month involve such language barriers. (About 1,200 calls come into the call center during a 24-hour period, she said.)

While that might not seem like a lot, the interpretation service is critical in helping call takers direct emergency workers to medical traumas, accidents or crime scenes.

The need for such a service has increased over time, said Stallings-Jarrell, a 19-year communications veteran.

"We receive a lot more than we used to, yes," she said. "One of the most frequent languages used is Spanish. And there are so many different dialects."

Mandarin has increased as well, with other language needs including Russian, Swahili, Vietnamese and Laotian.

One explanation for the increase are visitors who travel through Northeast Georgia. Additionally, immigrant populations are branching out from metro Atlanta, said D. Brian Mann, who is the department head and professor of modern languages at North Georgia College & State University, which last week received approval to add a Chinese major to its program offerings.

"Drive up and down Buford (Highway) and you find little Vietnam, little Laos; there are an amazing number of heritage communities all over the Atlanta metro area and even outside," Mann said. "If more calls are coming into Gainesville from Chinese speakers, I can definitely see that because as everybody moves north out of Atlanta the heritage communities are going with them."

Language Line Services is a beneficiary of this pattern that has played out nationally for decades.

The company, founded in 1981 by a San Jose police officer, is a $300 million company today, said public relations manager Dale F. Hansman. And more than 99 percent of that revenue stems from calls that include hundreds of first responder agencies such as Hall County's dispatch center, he added.

In all, 5,000 interpreters are trained to respond in more than 170 languages at any time of day from their homes, which could be anywhere in the U.S.

"This simplicity of the service is three people communicating," Hansman said. "It's not anything more than that."

The bill from Language Line Services breaks down languages and calls, which are billed out by the minute, Stallings-Jarrell said. Lesser used languages cost more, she added.

That's probably what caught Stallings-Jarrell off guard the first time she spotted Mandarin on the center's monthly bill. She decided to locate the call tape and replay it.

"There it was," Stallings-Jarrell said. "It sounded wonderful. But I just couldn't understand it."

Yet the call was dispatched like any other.