Everything emergency planners need to know about language

Why translation and interpreting need to go in your incident action plan, for Spanish and beyond

Terena Bell is an independent journalist writing for The Atlantic, Washington Post, Fast Company and others. She is former CEO of In Every Language and was on the GALA and ALC boards.

Terena Bell

Terena Bell is an independent journalist writing for The Atlantic, Washington Post, Fast Company and others. She is former CEO of In Every Language and was on the GALA and ALC boards.


ccording to the last census, 21% of Americans don’t speak English at home. But it’s the language of choice for most emergency management teams, creating a communication barrier that can kill. During Hurricane Katrina, 70-80 people in Gulfport, Mississippi, died because evacuation updates didn’t go out in Spanish and Portuguese, the languages they spoke.

The common sense fix is to have translators and interpreters at the ready. But this isn’t enough. You have to be able to actually deploy them. Long before Hurricane Irma approached the state, the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) contracted SYSTRAN to localize its website. Unfortunately, the site’s use of an IFRAME coding element meant the shelter list went untranslated, leaving 72.8% of Miami-Dade residents without in-language information. After I called for comment, the state changed the code — just in time to translate the list before Irma’s arrival.

Websites aren’t the only critical translation work that can be completed before an emergency occurs. The US Census surveys language use every ten years for all American counties, with the American Community Survey providing updated estimates annually. This gives emergency management the information they need in order to know which languages will be required. In California, for example, 44% of the population doesn’t speak English at home, so when the state requires federal assistance, emergency planners have 12 hours post-incident to tell the US Department of Homeland Security each community’s preferred language. On a national level, in its Basic Guidance for Public Information Officers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends public information officers “be able to gather, verify, prepare, coordinate, and disseminate information to all audiences, including those with disabilities, special needs, or language requirements. It is important to have materials translated into common non-English area languages… Contacts should be established to translate emergency information.”

Of course, translating materials beforehand isn’t possible for every scenario. Take the Hanukkah Eve windstorm that struck the state of Washington in 2006. More than one million people lost power, leading Governor Christine Gregoire to declare a state of emergency 17 counties-wide. Seattle local Rick Antezana says, “It took 11 days to get all of the power restored.”

People stand in a flooded street that usually serves as a farmers market, in Ouanaminthe, northeast Haiti, September 8, 2017. (Photo by Josiah Cherenfant, courtesy of VOA Creole Service).

Weather forecasters were able to predict the gale force winds, but nobody saw the carbon monoxide pandemic coming. Antezana says, “An unanticipated threat emerged [as] people moved their charcoal and propane grills indoors to cook on and for heat.” And of course, this generated carbon monoxide in homes. “Hundreds of people became sick,” he continues, and eight died. That’s when Antezana’s translation company, Dynamic Language, got involved: Public Health asked Dynamic to translate warnings into Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, Russian and Somali, stopping the deaths. Today, Antezana says, “Public Health has warnings in 24 languages on their website.”

Not all emergencies have a severe weather hook, either. During the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, Jinny Bromberg says her business, Bromberg & Associates, translated information “about the crisis, prevention and best practices for obtaining clean water” into Arabic, Chinese, Hmong and Spanish for the Michigan Office for New Americans. Those files are still available on the state’s website today.

And then there are the incidences when translation isn’t enough: first responders also need interpreters. Not to be confused, the two are entirely different services. Translation is written, interpretation is verbal, and companies that sell one don’t always provide the other. For conversations, 911 departments typically have an existing partner providing interpreters who help with individual emergencies every day. But for larger crises, it’s helpful to prevent confusion by identifying this partner in your incident action plan — especially as a single city can have a different vendor for each department. Case in point, the Toronto, Ontario, police department works with MCIS Language Solutions, but 911 uses competitor LanguageLine Solutions. The last thing you want in an emergency is for first responders to not know which one to call.

In choosing a vendor, it’s also important to realize local providers may be impacted by the same emergency you are. “Local translators and interpreters are just as affected as everyone else,” says Bill Rivers, executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages. Per Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research), 6-10% of American translators and interpreters live in Florida and Puerto Rico, areas impacted by Irma. Irma also struck within days of Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas — a hotbed of Spanish translation talent. The blow to availability, Rivers explains, was significant. CSA Research spokeswoman Melissa Gillespie adds, “Alternatives to on-site translators and interpreters include remote interpreting options for Spanish and other languages through companies headquartered outside the affected region, but such options may be limited due to technology and infrastructure difficulties in a post-disaster zone.”

Billed on a per-minute rate, telephone interpreting can be more cost-effective than on-site interpreting, depending on language, conversation length and context. But if you’re on a tight budget, think twice before relying on Google Translate or similar free tools. Rina Ne’eman, managing director of, says online translators are appropriate for “extremely general purposes,” but for anything legal or medical, quality is “dubious.” And in life and death situations, professional translators have been known to work pro bono. Translators without Borders, a Connecticut-based nonprofit, provides free crisis and trauma translation, and in Seattle, Antezana says, “We didn’t bill Public Health for the project.”

“Meaningful language access really saves lives,” says Bromberg & Associates director of operations Cathy Radloff. In Flint, just as in Florida and Seattle, she adds, “It did save lives.” And on its most fundamental level, that’s what emergency response is all about.

Translation disaster relief in action

Translators without Borders (TWB) has a strong community of Spanish-speaking translators engaged in its development and humanitarian activities. This community makes sure those affected by natural disasters can access information in their own language. For example, in the autumn of 2017, TWB relied on this community to support the response to the hurricanes that wrought havoc in the Caribbean.

First came Hurricane Harvey. TWB mobilized Spanish translators in its community as well as through social media. Rapid response teams mobilized to translate urgent communications for US-based NGO Humanity Road and the American Red Cross (ARC). These included translations of basic preparedness materials advising residents on how to secure their homes and where to go for assistance. 13 TWB translators also monitored social media for information that Humanity Road could relay to first responders. In all, 20 Spanish translators took part in the Harvey response, alongside colleagues working into Arabic and Vietnamese.

Several of the same translators stayed engaged for the response to Hurricane Irma, translating materials for the ARC and local responders. This allowed national Red Cross societies to communicate critical storm-preparedness messages quickly — for instance via Twitter.

Over 100 volunteers responded to TWB’s appeal for translators for the hurricanes. For two weeks, the teams were operating in multiple languages around the clock. Rapid-turnaround translation continued afterwards to support coordination of the clean-up operation and assistance to affected people in the aftermath of the storms.

If you’d like to be part of TWB’s committed team of Spanish-speaking translators, apply at