Emergency services dispatcher hung up on Spanish-speaking caller in fatal fire, lawsuit alleges

Lehigh County, in the eastern US state of Pennsylvania, is the subject of a lawsuit filed in federal court on October 20 alleging, among other things, that a 911 dispatcher hung up on a Spanish-speaking caller seeking rescue from a burning home. The caller and his 14-year-old nephew perished in the blaze (911 is the general emergency services number in the United States).

The lawsuit, first reported by local news sources, brought by a group of former employees at Lehigh County emergency dispatch, also alleges that employees would express their displeasure at having to field calls from non-English speakers and refused to avail themselves of telephonic interpreting services to assist non-English-speaking callers.

Local media report that Frank Kane, county director of community and economic development, has labelled the claims of improper handling “categorically false,” while Vice reports that county solicitor Thomas Caffrey said that not only did dispatchers not hang up on the caller, but that the caller and dispatcher spoke in English briefly before the call disconnected. Caffrey, who is running for Lehigh County judge in the upcoming municipal elections, also called the allegations of mishandling “absolutely false” but neither Kane nor Caffrey have commented on the wider allegations of discriminatory behavior toward LEP, particularly Spanish-speaking, callers. 

The suit also alleges that the former director of the call center was warned by the plaintiffs that not purchasing telephonic interpreting services for callers with limited English proficiency (LEP) could imperil county residents’ lives. County officials insist that there are protocols in place to assist LEP callers by connecting them to these services. It’s unknown which provider the county uses for language services if indeed any, and county officials did not respond to MultiLingual’s request for comment.

The suit plays out against the backdrop of increased scrutiny on medical and emergency services providers during the COVID-19 pandemic, which observers say has both highlighted and exacerbated the shortfalls in providing language access to vital services in the US and elsewhere.

Michael Reid
Michael Reid, Managing Editor at MultiLingual, is an educator, translator, and language, culture, and diversity consultant who lives in Athens, Greece, with over 20 years of experience. He speaks six languages fluently and another seven to basic competence. He also speaks just enough Klingon to negotiate safe passage through the Neutral Zone.

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