07/02/2012 04:38 pm ET

Tennessee Firefighters Use Flashcards To Aid Spanish-Speaking Victims

Axe? Check. Fire extinguisher? Check. Spanish flashcards? Er...

Starting this week, firefighters in Knoxville, Tennessee will be adding one more tool to their fireman checklist: laminated Spanish flashcards. Knoxville Fire Department Senior Firefighter Al Ludwig, who put together the program, told that he hopes the cards will improve communication in Spanish-dominant neighborhoods during emergency situations. The effort is part of an on-going national debate about how emergency responders should best serve immigrant and non-English speaking communities.

Senior Firefighter Kevin Spooner, who has served his community in his role for 23 years, told that the flashcard program is desperately needed in his community.

"The Hispanic population is growing and we really need this," Spooner said.

In some areas of the Knoxville, ten to 20 percent of emergency calls require Spanish-English translation, according to The flash cards include phrases such as, "Show me the injury?", "Are you pregnant?", and "Are you taking any medications?", according to the report.

But, Knoxville isn't the first city to grapple with the question of how best to serve Spanish-speaking communities.

In Boston, the fire department's efforts to hire 15 Spanish-speaking firefighters was met with resistance from veterans groups, who claim the initiative is a disguised form of ethnic affirmative action, according to The Boston Globe.

“We need people who can speak Spanish in Hispanic neighborhoods,’ Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr said in response to the veterans' complaints. “We’re not refusing to hire veterans. The majority of runs — over 45 percent of our responses — are emergency medical calls. You need to be able to talk to the people about what’s wrong when you show up on scene.’’

Still, in some other cities, emergency response translation is outsourced to border patrol agents -- a practice which immigration rights advocates say is worrisome and illegal.

In May, a Seattle-based immigrant advocacy nonprofit filed a formal civil rights complaint against the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, challenging the practice of local police departments calling in border patrol agents to act as interpreters.

“Law enforcement agencies who attempt to use Border Patrol for alleged ‘interpretation assistance’ during routine matters are failing to provide meaningful access to their services to people with limited English skills, as they are required to do under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Executive Order 13166,” Jorge L. Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the organization that filed the complaint, said in a press statement.

The border patrol insists that when called in for translators, they stick to translating. Spokesperson Richard Sinks told Seattle-area KUOW/ 94.9 FM news radio, "we will not arrest or even seek immigration status of a victim or a witness. We're strictly there for translation in that type of request."

There seem to be some exceptions, however.

In April of this year, border patrol agents were called to act as interpreters when six immigrants placed a 911 call in Huron County, Michigan. The Huffington Post uncovered that border patrol agents never translated the reasons for the initial 911 call, but rather, only identified the immigrants as undocumented, and took them into custody. The six men were later deported back to Mexico, and the reason for the 911 call was never discovered.

Despite the growing political debate surrounding the matter, Tennessee firefighters say an effective way of communicating with Spanish-speakers is becoming a must in their profession. Ludwig, who founded the program, says he isn't concerned with the immigration politics, rather, he simply wants provide the best services possible to communities which are Spanish-dominant.

"As firefighters, we're not there to discuss the politics of it, we're there to help human beings," Ludwig told



Politicians Speaking Spanish