Lorena Landelos was walking to her house in Pilsen a year and a half ago when a man with a knife appeared and demanded she hand over her purse.

“I didn't want to give him my bag because it had my immigration documents inside,” Landelos, 63, recalls. Speaking in Spanish, she says the man kept jabbing the knife at her to make her let go. “I said, ‘My God, help me!’ and I don't know how I wasn't stabbed.” 

When he finally got a good grip on the purse, he started running away, dragging Landelos behind him for a few feet before she let go. She says she was crying when she got home and called 911 to ask for the police—but then, due to the language barrier, she was put on hold.

“I was on the phone for about an hour or two waiting for someone who spoke Spanish to help me,” she says.

At that point, her daughter told her it didn't seem like 911 was going to be able to help. She hung up.

Lorena Landelos’ story is just one example of the problems Spanish speakers face when they dial 911 (Photo by Alex V. Hernandez)

Lorena Landelos’ story is just one example of the problems Spanish speakers face when they dial 911 (Photo by Alex V. Hernandez)

Landelos’ story is just one example of the problems Spanish speakers face when they dial 911. According to the 2010 Census, 28.9 percent Chicagoans are of Hispanic decent, and 35.9 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home. Chicago’s 911 system handles about 5 million calls a year. But some non-English callers say the translation services can be inadequate, and when something is lost in translation, first responders can mistakenly put callers in compromising situations if they don’t know what to expect when they arrive.

When someone calls 911 in Chicago, it’s first patched to a person sitting in front of a computer programmed with preset questions, usually starting with, “What’s your emergency?” The system allows operators to quickly categorize a call and direct it to either police or fire dispatchers, who will ask more specific questions before sending people to the scene.

But if the caller doesn't speak English, they’ll ask the caller to hold while they get someone from a language interpretation service.

See the companion newscast to "Lost in Translation" at Univision Chicago: Usuarios enfrentan barreras del idioma al llamar al 911

We actually work with a language interpretation service which provides support for about 140 different languages,” says Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which is responsible for taking all 911 calls in Chicago. “I think the most common non-English languages that we experience are Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Spanish, French and Tagalog.”

“The operator pushes a button and the caller is automatically connected to someone who listens to what the caller is trying to say,” says Tate-Nadeau. “If it sounds like Polish, the interpretation service will get someone who speaks Polish to get on the line to work in unison with the dispatcher handling the 911 call.”

It’s that added step for non-English callers that can lead to serious complications during an emergency situation.

Chicago's 911 system allows operators to quickly categorize a call and direct it to either police or fire dispatchers (photo by Vidura Jang Bahadur)

Chicago's 911 system allows operators to quickly categorize a call and direct it to either police or fire dispatchers (photo by Vidura Jang Bahadur)

In Landelos’ case, though the wait was frustrating, ultimately she was able to file a police report three days later when she went to a police station and told her story to a Spanish-speaking officer. “Within a week or two [the police] had found my purse and they brought me back my immigration documents, but the money was gone, which was less important to me than those documents,” she says.

Translation issues can have much larger consequences, too. In domestic abuse situations, if the victim doesn’t speak English but the abuser does, the system can fail to protect the victim, says Estela Melgoza, domestic violence program director at Mujeres Latinas en Acción.

One client Melgoza recalls wasn’t able to speak to a 911 operator who spoke Spanish, and the responding officers spoke English. So when officers arrived on the scene they deferred to the only person present who spoke English: the client’s abuser.

“The aggressor told the officers that he was the victim and had my client arrested,” Melgoza says.

Melgoza also notes that issues can arise when the caller asks a minor to translate on his or her behalf. Once, one of her clients called 911 and “the operator asked the victim to put someone on the phone who speaks English. My client ended up putting a minor on the phone to explain why she needed help from police,” she says.

The minor, who was very young, ended up having to translate the violence and trauma that happened to her client.

Melgoza says she gives her clients a bilingual DV crisis phone number, one that is available 24 hours a day, to put on speed dial. And even though that one instance of having a minor translate was problematic, she said non-English speaking clients should consider having someone with them who can speak English to translate when they call 911 calls in order to sidestep OEMC’s translation service.

“But I don't want to discourage people from calling 911,” she adds. “That number is an important resource, and maybe the next time a Spanish language client calls they do get someone who will help them.”

Even when 911 callers are able to communicate with someone in their native language, some say the computerized system of questions makes it difficult to get help in a timely way. Yuridia Diaz, 33, is another primary Spanish speaker who lives in the Little Village neighborhood with her husband, two young children and mother-in-law. One night around 3 a.m. she was woken up by the sounds of her husband choking in bed next to her.

“I called 911 and told them I needed someone who speaks Spanish,” says Diaz. “I quickly got transferred to someone who speaks Spanish and I told them, ‘My husband is choking. I need an ambulance. He can't breathe.’”

She says the 911 operator then began asking her a series of questions, like if her husband did any drugs or if he was drunk. Diaz started getting frustrated because the operator kept asking her questions, but wouldn't clarify if help was on its way.

“I’m seeing my husband, who can't speak, I see his face turning a bright red color,” Diaz remembers. “There were too many questions for something as simple as a man who is choking. I started thinking of other ways I could get my husband help because these questions were not helping him.”

She hung up on the 911 operator, grabbed her kids and mother-in-law and drove her husband to the hospital herself. Once there, medical staff got her husband breathing again.

 Yuridia Diaz, 33 (photo by Alex V. Hernandez)

 Yuridia Diaz, 33 (photo by Alex V. Hernandez)

Melissa Stratton, OEMC spokeswoman, says, “We want people to know that even though we continue to ask these important series of questions in order to get the proper resources to them, we are already working with our dispatchers to make sure that those resources are being dispatched, whether it be fire, police and fire, or whatever the situation may call for.”

Additional questions help ensure the safety of first responders as well as the safety of the caller, she says.

But lack of explanation of these questions is a problem cited by other 911 callers, not just non-English speakers. Barbara Shaw, nurse practitioner and assistant professor at Rush University, says she gets frustrated when dispatchers ask for information that could be considered sensitive without providing any context.

“A lot of times the [911 operator] will ask if I want to give my name, asking like it's not in my best interest to give my name,” says Shaw, who has lived in the Humboldt Park area for over 20 years and says she often calls 911 when she hears gunshots. But the operator doesn’t explain why they need the name or who will have access to that information, Shaw says.

She says 911 operators should be clearer about how the information callers are giving them is being used as well as be more responsive when callers ask questions of their own.

“And [911 operators] don't really give you that information up front, which makes it kind of a weird dynamic,” she says. “So if they ask about giving my name, well, tell me why I wouldn't want to, or tell me how you’re going to use my name and address.”

This report was produced in collaboration with Univision Chicago