9 Investigates language barriers in local 911 system

Updated:

Loading
ORLANDO, Fla. —

Channel 9 uncovered major delays during some emergency calls due to a language barrier, but it could also affect anyone who calls 911 for help.

One man is demanding change for the lives he said are on the line.

Rene Martinez took WFTV inside the food truck where his friend Mireya Alvarado was killed by a man demanding money. When she was shot, Martinez, who only speaks Spanish, immediately called 911.

On the call, Martinez can be heard saying, "Una ambulancia, por favor!"

But the dispatcher didn't understand him.

That night, like many others, Orange County had no bi-lingual dispatcher available, so Alvarado lay alone, bleeding on the floor of her food truck while Martinez searched for someone who spoke English.

Rolando Carasquel said he is furious it took seven minutes for paramedics to be dispatched to his dying wife.

"There is no excuse for the delay," said attorney Paul Sangiovanni. "Twenty-five percent of residents in Orange County are Hispanic."

Sangiovanni represents Alvarado's husband in a pending lawsuit he hopes will change how 911 calls are handled when translators are needed. He said if you speak English and don't think this is your problem, think again.

"The person shot could have been you or me," said Sangiovanni.

But even when calls were transferred to language line, a California-based translating service used by the sheriff's office, WFTV found some were mishandled.

In one call, a dispatcher spent almost 10 minutes struggling to understand a terrified Haitian woman who had an intruder in her house.

"I apologize for the delay, ma'am, but I have all creole interpreters busy … should I continue searching?" the translation service representative said.

"Yes, please. It's an emergency," the 911 operator said.

Deputies reached the woman before a translator ever got on the line.

"This is unacceptable. People's lives are at stake," said Bryan Rintoul, director of emergency communications.

Rintoul said new, technical upgrades and new guidelines for operators will improve the system.

But Alvarado's husband said he'll always wonder if a faster response could have saved his wife.

In a statement, Language Line told WFTV, "We have interpreted 11,000 calls locally for the sheriff's department and connected more than 10,000 in less than 20 seconds, and almost all of the remaining in under 60 seconds."

The sheriff's office has launched an effort to recruit more bilingual 911 operators.