Disaster Aid for All: Emergency Services Hindered by Language Barriers
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This post by LAist intern Kristy Pyke was produced via Spot.Us, a nonprofit project of the Center for Media Change. It is an open source project to pioneer “community powered reporting.”
Marta Lopez sat in church one Sunday as her head spun and her thoughts became blank. She recovered consciousness and stared in confusion as paramedics standing over her asked questions she could not answer. Lopez, a Spanish-speaking El Salvadoran, struggled not only to regain her senses but simultaneously muster up the little English she knew to describe a heart condition that had caused her to faint.
"I didn't know what they were asking. It is frustrating to not be able to express what you are feeling," explained Lopez in Spanish.
In 2009, the U.S Census Bureau estimated that among the 9.8 million people in Los Angeles County, 47 percent are Hispanic or Latino and 13 percent are Asian. In total, around 56 percent of L.A.'s population does not consider English to be its first language, meaning almost 5.5 million residents deal with language barriers to some capacity.
Such barriers become particularly dangerous when communication is a matter of life or death, or safety vs. risk. Foundations, advocacy groups and research institutions have warned for years about the severity of not reaching the culturally diverse communities regarding disaster preparedness.
The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute and Asian Pacific American Legal Center last month published a report stating L.A. County lacks sufficient resources to provide emergency information to the Asian American and Latino populations.
Other studies - "California's Emergency Preparedness Efforts for Culturally Diverse Communities" by the Natural Resource Center and "Addressing the Needs of Immigrants and Limited English Communities in Disaster Planning and Relief" by the National Immigration Law Center - also critique the disconnect between communities of people with limited proficiency in English and government agencies.
Yet the complexities of such a problem are not easily solved. Most government organizations also agree there is a lack of funding and resources to effectively reach all populations.
"It is definitely an important issue. But with the city's budget drying up... we just have enough money to stay afloat," said Chris Ipsen, LA's division chief of the Emergency Management Department. "Any additional money comes through grants."
Assemblymember Paul Fong last year authored a bill requiring California to consider multiple languages during emergency preparedness planning and response. Gov. Schwarzenegger, however, vetoed it, claiming that under current law, the state already considers the needs of all citizens and multilingual populations.
The new report now cites issues of trust, collaboration and mutual understanding that still exist within many non-English speaking communities.
The report, titled "Are We All Ready for Disaster?: Recommendations for Improving Disaster Preparation of Limited English-Proficient Communities" claimed there was a lack of bilingual personnel among emergency first responders. Immigrants or people with limited English ability were then not able to fully communicate the problem and receive the proper assistance.
In Lopez's case, she and husband Victor desperately tried to explain why she had fainted. They say they know she could have been in serious danger if they had failed. Luckily, a girl inside the church that day was able to translate, spurring paramedics to correctly assess what was going on and provide care. But Lopez says she was so scared during the situation that it motivated her to take English classes; she'll begin her studies in September.
George Kotrikaeze experienced a similar challenge during his first year in America after immigrating from the Republic of Georgia when he was 12. At that time, his grandmother took the wrong medication and his family had to call 911. They knew enough English get the ambulance to their house, but after paramedics drove away, he and his relatives had difficulty finding the hospital. Then once at the hospital, they again got lost looking for her room, where they urgently wanted to tell doctors about her situation.
"We speak Russian as well. So we finally found someone at the hospital who spoke Russian," said Kotrikaeze. "I don't even want to think about what we would have done if we didn't also speak Russian."
But a lack of bilingual personnel is not the only hindrance to patients like his grandma or Lopez. The report also found a need for more collaboration between government services and ethnic media to disseminate emergency warnings, training and preparation in the first language of the recipient.
Rashed and Suhail Almazrooei said they wish someone had explained what an earthquake was or what to do when caught in one. Imagine their complete shock last year when the ground started shaking.
The two cousins from Dubai had been in America for about a year, taking classes in Santa Monica on student visas, when a temblor knocked them off their feet.
"I didn't know what it was. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know anything," said Rashed Almazrooei, "It came strong."
He and his cousin were lucky to have a teacher tell them how to duck and cover if another earthquake came in the future. But they also admitted they did not know of any emergency organizations like the Red Cross, or an Arabic translation service, or even where to begin looking for help if they had been hurt in the process.
Even if the cousins had known of an Arabic news station, the different reports indicate media content may still be lacking. According to the Natural Resource Center, "following the Whittier Narrows earthquake, for example, many Latinos reported that 'English�?language radio tended to have better information than the Spanish�?language station; the sole Chinese newspaper was out of date and the Hispanic radio stations focused on human�?interest stories which resulted in ethnic communities getting incorrect information.' "
Another problem identified was a lack of trust in government officials that might hinder community participation in outreach programs and disaster relief efforts.
Koji Sugawara from Japan admitted he had a hard time with agencies like the police department, the hospital and the post office. He gave an example of a time his wallet was stolen and had to go to the authorities.
"No one spoke Japanese. No one found my wallet," Sugawara said, "Wells Fargo give me translator. Police did not give me translator."
Sugawara admitted he didn't like going to the police or post office. "I didn't feel people were helpful. Police... difficult to communicate with them."
Sometimes, immigrants will also be hesitant to contact City Hall or reach out for assistance for fear of questions regarding immigration status.
But ultimately these language barriers and misconceptions can be combated with increased collaboration. Once effective communication is opened between communities and social-services agencies or local governments, disaster preparedness can be tackled more quickly and successfully.
Officials at the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department, for example, say they understand the issue of collaboration and have decided to use part of a $68 million allocation from the Department of Homeland Security to start a program called Urban Area Security Initiative. Through it, translation of "readiness material" will be provided for 14 different languages.
This type of material includes checklists on how to prepare for various disasters, emergency survival guides and information on how to empower individuals and neighborhoods to be self- sufficient in case emergency responders cannot arrive immediately after a disaster.
Among the languages the kits, pamphlets and information will be translated into a Spanish, Armenian, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Thai, Khmer and Vietnamese. EMD employees will then distribute the material via the Web, community fairs and social media, as well as partnering with neighborhood councils and faith-based organizations in different sections of Los Angeles.
EMD officials are optimistic about tackling the issue of disaster preparedness for non-English speakers but remain realistic about the enormity of the task.
"We see this issue all the time. But there are so many different languages spoken. How do we get to them all?" Ipsen asked.
That is why the Asian Pacific American Legal Center has announced it will collaborate with government agencies such as the EMD to find better solutions and continue to fund programs to reach out to populations who have yet to be connected.
Center organizers also will hold a legislative briefing in Sacramento in early August to discuss the future of disaster preparedness on a statewide level. "APALC would like California to establish a standard protocol that city and county agencies across the state adhere to" so that all communities, despite their lack of English proficiency, are incorporated into disaster planning, said Victoria Wilson, demographic research assistant at the center.
That's "regardless of where in the state they live."