How to Bridge the Language Gap for First Responders

We talk about language access a lot when it comes to areas like legal assistance, health care, and voting, but the conversation shouldn’t just end there. For many people in our communities, language access — or a lack thereof — has effects that must be faced regularly. 

Take emergency situations and disaster relief, for instance. Language access for first responders is a critical consideration that can, quite literally, be a life-or-death situation here.

Although many of us take it for granted, the language we speak plays an important role in our ability to communicate with first responders and give them the rundown of the emergency we’re facing. But even dialing up 911 to request a firefighter or ambulance can feel a bit daunting for US residents with limited English proficiency (LEP). Luckily, most 911 centers have access to on-demand over-the-phone interpreting services that can ease communication between the operator and a caller with LEP.

But it’s not so simple for the emergency responders that actually arrive on the scene. A study published in JAMA Network Open earlier this year found that language barriers between emergency medical service (EMS) workers and patients with LEP can lead to patient distrust and make it difficult for the responder to determine the actual severity of a given emergency.

This — combined with the fact that the population of individuals with LEP is on the rise — means it’s critical that any department employing emergency responders develop a thorough, well-informed language access plan.

By creating a language access plan that takes into account the unique needs of people in emergency situations, fire departments, law enforcement agencies, and other institutions providing first responder services can refine and improve their level of emergency preparedness.

Read on for important considerations these agencies should make as they devise their language access plan.

Language Access and Emergency Preparedness

When disasters and emergencies strike, seconds can feel like hours. Though it may not be more than a couple of seconds, the time it takes to get connected to a 911 dispatcher can seem like a lengthy wait.

Now, imagine having to wait for an interpreter to come on the line after that.

911 dispatchers and first responders like firefighters, EMS drivers, and police officers are typically the first people on the scene to provide assistance in emergency situations where timeliness is of the essence.

Language barriers between these workers and those in need can delay their care and potentially endanger them even further. As a result, language access is essential in emergency management and disaster relief.

Here are some things that first responder agencies can keep in mind to ensure that they’re prepared to help anybody who finds themselves in an emergency, regardless of the language they speak.

Remote Interpretation Services

It’s not always possible — or safe — to bring an in-person interpreter to the scene of an emergency.

Remote interpretation services like video remote interpreting (VRI) and over-the-phone (OPI) interpreting can allow first responders to communicate with LEP individuals, without the need for an interpreter to be present.

VRI allows users to see the patient as well, making this a particularly useful option when providing aid to deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals. Plus, the ability to see visual cues and get a better idea of the context in which the emergency is taking place makes VRI a better option for spoken languages too.

First responder agencies should consult and partner with local language service providers to ensure the availability of on-demand VRI or OPI services in emergency situations. Although these services might have slight delays compared to on-scene interpreters or bilingual staff, it’s an important step toward providing adequate language access.

Bilingual Staff

It’s also a good idea to prioritize hiring bilingual staff who can communicate with people in different languages.

Although bilingual police officers and firefighters aren’t a complete replacement for interpreters in emergency situations, individuals with native proficiency in a second language can be immensely helpful in providing timely care to those in need.

Still, agencies must be thoughtful and principled in their approach to seeking out bilingual staff. Consult with local LSPs and conduct your own research to identify languages that are particularly common in your region to identify the most in-demand languages in your region.

I Speak Cards

Hiring bilingual staff and working with an LSP to provide remote interpreting services is a good first step. But you also need to have a way to find out what language an individual speaks.

Individuals who don’t speak English as their primary language may not know how to express their primary language to you — that’s where I Speak cards come in handy. These cards provide basic communication phrases in different languages, making it easier to identify an individual’s primary language. Bringing I Speak cards to the site of an emergency can help first responders determine which language a person needs.

Universal Signs and Pictures

While human interpreters are undoubtedly a critical part of providing language access in emergency situations, visual aids like signs and pictures can also help bridge the language gap.

Now, these are by no means a replacement for actual language services. However, they can help first responders communicate with individuals on the scene if there’s a significant delay in remote interpretation services or the arrival of a bilingual first responder.

Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services

To provide high-quality care, first responders should also receive comprehensive training in providing culturally and linguistically appropriate services. This can help them better understand cultural differences and provide more effective and sensitive care. Again, since language barriers can cause a sense of distrust in the patient, being sensitive to cultural differences can allow first responders to create and maintain a sense of trust.


With the growth of LEP populations throughout the US, language access services are becoming a critical consideration for first responders. Here are some things first responder agencies should keep in mind when developing a language access plan:

  • Remote Interpretation Services: Getting an interpreter to the scene of an emergency can be challenging and even unsafe, so remote services allow you to communicate seamlessly with individuals in need.
  • Bilingual Staff: Individuals who speak another language with native proficiency can speed up the process of providing care.
  • I Speak Cards: These can help you identify the language an individual speaks if they’re unable to tell you on their own.
  • Universal Signs and Pictures: By no means a replacement for actual language services, these can get the ball rolling while you wait for VRI or OPI services.
  • Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services: Training your staff to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services helps build trust between first responders and those in need.

At Avantpage, we’re proud to provide remote interpretation services to first responders. If you’re interested in learning more about how first responder agencies can develop and improve their language access services, contact us today at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040.