Device helps Lawrence first responders break through language barrier

Lawrence uses black box to communicate

LAWRENCE, Ind. - A language barrier often complicates first responders in efforts to get life-saving help to those in need, but Lawrence is using a breakthrough device to curb that problem.

Time is the often the enemy when police, paramedics and firefighters are called for help.  Until recently, first responders in Lawrence didn't have a quick or efficient way of communicating with people who speak little or no English.

Lawrence is the only city in Indiana using a mobile translating device, a black box that connects first responders to Minnesota-based RTT, a company that provides translation services in 180 languages.

"We have an opportunity to understand things in real-time speed," said Lawrence Police Chief Michael Walton. "That makes a difference between life and death."

The device is especially essential during medical runs involving strokes and heart attacks.

"Waiting for a translator takes time trying to relay from somebody over the telephone, as an example, takes time," said Lawrence Fire Chief Mark Delong. "We don't have that much time when there is a patient that needs to be transported."

Call 6 Investigator Rafael Sanchez went on patrol with Officer David Gordon to see the device in action. Dispatchers sent Gordon to a crime victim who spoke little English.

Turning on his mobile translator, Gordon was able to begin asking questions within a minute.

"Hi, this is Carrie, you Spanish interpreter. How may I assist you?" said a voice from the device.

"I'm here with Maria. She has a report of a stolen license plate. I'm just going to ask basic questions to get information for a report," Gordon said.

The device then began speaking in Spanish, relaying the information police sought to the victim. Gordon said the device eliminates the language problem authorities frequently face.

"(It helps me) get better information … even subtle things you can pick up on makes us more effective on the job," Gordon said.

The device was also on duty during a large apartment fire a couple of weeks ago. While firefighters focused on containing the flames, public safety officials used the mobile translator to ease tenants' fears and provide details on what they could expect next.

Cindy Morris Downs, who works with immigrant groups, said at least 90 languages are spoken in Marion County alone.

"Speaking in a language foreign to them, it's very difficult, especially in a crisis situation, for them to be able to enunciate what their needs are," Downs said.

Police hope the talking boxes can play a key role in building positive relationships. Lawrence has 24 of them deployed between police and fire.

"It was a no-brainer. We need to be able to communicate with all of our citizens, not just in that emergency situation," said Lawrence Mayor Dean Jessup.

Lawrence did not have to pay for the devices, but the city will soon have to pay a monthly fee for the service and a charge for the time they spend with a translator.

Police in New Orleans began using the same device before the Super Bowl, and it is also in use in Tulsa, Okla. and Phoenix.

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