Emergency communications with limited-english-proficiency populations

Hendrika Meischke, Devora Chavez, Steve Bradley, Tom Rea, Mickey Eisenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Objective. We investigated 9-1-1 telecommunicators' perceptions of communication difficulties with callers who have limited English proficiency (LEP) and the frequency and outcomes of specific communication behaviors. Methods. A survey was administered to 150 telecommunicators from four 9-1-1 call centers of a metropolitan area in the Pacific Northwest to assess their experience working with LEP callers. In addition, 172 9-1-1 recordings (86 of which were labeled by telecommunicators as having a "language barrier") were abstracted for telecommunicators' communication behaviors and care delivery outcomes. All recordings were for patients who were in presumed cardiac arrest (patient unconscious and not breathing). Additionally, computer-assisted dispatch (CAD) reports were abstracted to assess dispatch practices with regard to timing of basic life support (BLS) and advanced life support (ALS) dispatch. Results. One hundred twenty-three of the telecommunicators (82%) filled out the survey. The majority (70%) reported that they encounter LEP callers almost daily and most (78%) of them reported that communication difficulties affect the medical care these callers receive. Additionally, the telecommunicators reported that calls with LEP callers are often (36%) stressful. The number one strategy for communication with LEP callers reported by telecommunicators was the use of a telephone interpreter line known as the Language Line. However, the Language Line was utilized in only 13 of LEP calls abstracted for this study. The analysis of 9-1-1 recordings suggests that the LEP callers received more repetition, rephrasing, and slowing of speech than the non-LEP callers. Although there was no difference in time from onset of call to dispatching BLS, there was a significant difference in simultaneous dispatching of BLS and ALS between the LEP calls (20%) and non-LEP calls (38%, p < 0.05). Conclusion. Our study shows that 9-1-1 telecommunicators believe language barriers with LEP callers negatively impact communication and care outcomes. More research needs to be conducted on "best practices" for phone-based emergency communication with LEP callers. Additionally, LEP communities need to better understand the 9-1-1 system and how to effectively communicate during emergencies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)265-271
Number of pages7
JournalPrehospital Emergency Care
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Dispatch
  • EMS
  • English proficiency
  • Language proficiency
  • Literacy
  • Underserved populations


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