New 911 Interpreter Service Meets Need of Diverse Ingham County, Michigan

by Viet Anh Phan December 13, 2023

Ingham County, Michigan’s population has changed over the last decade and the community is adapting.

Like many College Towns in the American Communities Project, the county’s population has grown more racially and ethnically diverse, with a 17% increase in people who do not speak English at home since 2010. In response, the community is turning to a new system to help it deliver emergency services.

Dispatchers at Michigan’s Ingham County 911 Central Dispatch are working in their office. Photo by Viet Anh Phan.

Eleven months ago, Ingham County, home to Michigan State University, implemented Telelanguage, a new 911 remote interpreter service that allows non-English speakers to report their emergencies faster. Today, the county says it is already seeing dividends.

“We’ve always had our services here to make sure that we execute our mission, which is to ensure people’s safety and well-being,” said Barb Davidson, director of Ingham County 911 Central Dispatch. But Telelanguage, she says “seems to be much quicker [than the old system].”

When a dispatcher takes a call from a person in an emergency, that operator will connect with Telelanguage to have a live translator on the line to help the caller. Davidson says Telelanguage has more than 50 languages, including Spanish, Burmese, Swahili, and others.

A Rise of Non-English Speakers

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey reveals that there were 37,000 residents speaking a language other than English at home in 2022. That’s up from about 32,500 in 2010.

More than 10,500 people speak Spanish at home in Ingham, 11,000 speak other Indo-European languages, more than 10,400 speak Asian and Pacific Island languages, and 5,000 speak other languages. 

Even with that growth, the data don’t yet suggest a big need for foreign language 911 services. According to Ingham County 911 Central Dispatch, there were 316,522 calls between November 2022 and September 2023. Among them, only 350 calls used translation service. 

But Davidson said the crucial point for the county is that if somebody has an emergency, the center must be poised to help. It’s all about building in redundancies and resilience. 

Brittnei Torgerson, one of the dispatchers, says the service is essential. If the center could have people who speak every language, “that’d be spectacular,” she said, but that’s not realistic, particularly with the changing nature of the population of Ingham.

The county has seen spikes of population who come from different countries and who primarily speak foreign languages, in part due to the international student population at Michigan State. As recently as 2018, more than 15,000 county residents spoke an Asian language at home – about 5,000 more Asian speakers than in 2022.

Davidson said the center has an employee certified to speak Spanish without the translation service. In the past, the center had an employee who was a fluent Arabic speaker, but she ended up deciding this wasn’t the job for her. 

The director said the center needs to have multiple levels on transcription service available, including a primary service like Telelanguage as well as native speakers in the room. 

For each call, Davidson said the center pays providers by the minute of translation; it’s nine cents for Spanish, one of most used languages that Propio, the company that owns Telelanguage, translates. When there’s a more unique language or it’s more difficult to find a translator, it charges more money. LanguageLine charges more than that. 

The center budgets about $25,000 a year for translation services.  

“I’m pretty satisfied with what we have so far. We think it’s going pretty well,” Davidson said. 

This is part of a series of posts from students at the Michigan State University Journalism School. The students will be covering four counties around Michigan during the 2024 campaign for the Detroit Free Press working with the American Communities Project typology.

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