News / Calgary

Calgary 911 fields calls in any language

With 25 different languages spoken by staff at a language service, Calgary 911 is able to speak to callers in any language

Calgary 911 will help callers in their own languages.

Metro File Photo

Calgary 911 will help callers in their own languages.

Handling 3,500 calls a day in a city that welcomes newcomers has presented a linguistic challenge for Calgary 911 operators in dealing with non-English calls.

According to Calgary 911, of their 300 call takers there are 20 who speak two or more languages, seven tri-lingual call takers, one call taker who speaks seven languages. In total there are 25 different languages spoken by Calgary 911 operators. 

Calgary 911 commander, Richard Hines, said he’s had the privilege of listening to many calls answered in different languages by his staff, and recalls when one operator was able to step in to help a Spanish caller.

“In seconds we were able to have one of our call takers who speaks Spanish on the line,” he said. “You could hear the difference in the lady’s voice when she was able to tell us exactly what was wrong— the comfort that creates is amazing."

When there isn’t someone who speaks the caller’s language on staff they use a language service, said Hines. Last year they utilized the service roughly 2,000 times out of the 1.2 million calls answered. 

Hines recalls one caller who called that spoke Wolof, a language Hines had never heard of before. 

“Being able to connect to someone who speaks that language through the language line is unbelievable,” he said. 

Hines said through education at schools and elsewhere, they’re hoping non-English speaking Calgarians will learn one line that can assist 911 call takers help them.

“Teaching them to say, ‘I speak Punjabi,’ or ‘I speak Cantonese,’ that’s all they have to do and we are off and running,” he said.