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Local News

9-1-1 Officials Still Reviewing Spanish Translation Proposal for Reverse Notifications

Civil grand jury recommends bilingual expansion for calls and phone number registry

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department will have its response next month to a civil grand jury’s recommendation that a Spanish translation be part of countywide reverse notification calls made through the 9-1-1 system.

The grand jury decided May 11 that the system needed improvements after it determined that, on average, successful contact was made with only 49 percent of landlines during five recent wildfires. Ventura County operates a similar system that reportedly reaches 54.3 percent, according to the grand jury’s report.

“The Sheriff’s Department has received the grand jury’s update, we are looking at it and we will have a response before the 60 days are up,” said Drew Sugars, a department spokesman.

The jury also recommended that the Sheriff Department’s online registration form also have a Spanish translation. Currently, there is only a brief Spanish translation of the system’s terms and conditions on the department’s Web site.

During the recent wildfires, the Sheriff’s Department used a bilingual message in areas it determined to have “a high percentage of Spanish-only speakers,” the grand jury’s report said.

Raquel Lopez, executive director of La Casa de la Raza, believes such assumptions of where Spanish-only speakers live is dangerous.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Lopez said. “To say it’s only the Eastside or Westside is not correct because they live all over the community.”

During the Jesusita Fire in May 2009, she said La Casa de la Raza, at 601 E. Montecito St. on the Lower Eastside, received many calls from community members and Radio Lazer looking to confirm rumors they had heard by word of mouth.

During emergencies people will find information on developments in whatever ways available to them, Lopez said. During the Jesusita Fire residents got direction from school administrators, their churches and community organizations, she said.

“People create ways of communicating,” Lopez said. “That’s just who they trust and feel comfortable with.”

Lopez supports any efforts to include a broader swath of the Santa Barbara community in emergency community outreach, she said.

The first official attempt to improve reverse notification calls through the 9-1-1 system and other disaster preparedness issues came from a 2006 civil grand jury. The subsequent report served as a catalyst for the Orfalea Foundations starting the Aware & Prepare initiative in 2008.

To prevent the kind of hysteria that Lopez saw during the recent wildfires, the initiative seeks to help educate the Santa Barbara community to prepare, respond to, and recover from disasters.

“A lot of it was the grand jury’s belief that we were ill-prepared for an emergency,” said Javier Moreno, the Aware & Prepare initiative’s coordinator. “Fires, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, you name it — we have it here.”

Moreno believes a Spanish translation of reverse notification calls made through the 9-1-1 system would help meet the community’s demand for emergency information. He added that it would need to be complemented with an education program about its importance and to dispel any myths about registering.

“Another element would be ensuring that in educating the public about the resource, there is clarification that although it is a government agency that operates the system, registering for the alert system would in no way compromise the person based on their citizenship status,” Aware & Prepare director Barbara Andersen wrote in an e-mail to Noozhawk.

“There is already a mistrust of government within the non-English-speaking communities.”

Last fall, the Orfalea Foundations made a grant to the county Office of Emergency Services and the Sheriff’s Department, specifically to expand the available number of outgoing phone lines to 46 from 28. The addition would allow the Sheriff’s Department to increase the number of calls it could make per hour to 2,500 from 1,500.

Andersen declined to disclose the grant’s amount because such disclosures are against foundation policy.

The Sheriff’s Department encourages county residents to register their cell phone numbers so they can be contacted by reverse notification calls through the 9-1-1 system in emergency situations. Click here to register your number. No action is required for telephone customers of Cox Communications and Verizon, whose networks can work with the reverse notification system.

Noozhawk intern Daniel Langhorne will be a junior at Chapman University in the fall. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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