How fire chiefs can better serve immigrant residents

Language and culture can greatly impede a department's efforts to resolve and prevent emergencies, but there are ways to overcome it

Looking into one’s genealogy is always interesting, and sometimes causes us to pause about our family’s past.

My wife’s family arrived in America from Denmark in the mid-18th century. One of her relatives served in the Continental Army fighting for our independence during the American revolution.

My family didn’t arrive from Germany until the 1850s. Some served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Each family at one time were immigrants – newcomers to a new nation.

Immigration has been a hot topic in both Europe and the United States for several years and continues to be hotly debated in the legislative, judicial and executive branches of our federal government.

However you feel about this issue, the fire service endeavors to serve everyone equally with care, consideration and professionalism.

Nearly every major population center has a Chinatown, Little Italy, Rhineland or Irish neighborhood that preserves certain heritages while standing as a testimony to that era of immigration in our country. Many early volunteer fire companies were organized in part by area that was delineated by an ethnic descent.

While rivalries persisted, all of these fire companies came together for the common good when threatened by a conflagration, and so it is still today.

Language and cultural barriers

While I was chief in a suburban community several years ago, my department regularly responded on automatic aid to structure fires in a neighboring community. One of the high-hazard risks was an apartment complex that sat immediately across from our corporation line. Most who lived in that complex were originally from Somalia.

We had identified this population from the frequent calls for EMS and the fact that my department also provided their advanced life support services. If we were fortunate on those occasions, a school-aged child might be available to help interpret for us, especially when dealing with an older patient.

The complex was especially vulnerable for working fires. Several fire calls were delayed alarms as a family member searched for someone in the building who knew how to call 911 and spoke English well enough to report the fire. We knew that if the fire was being reported by a child, the chances were greater that it would be a worker due to the delay.

To further complicate matters, the apartment complex contained a hierarchy of elders. Some understood the importance of reporting a fire immediately. Others had a distrust for anyone in uniform based on their experience in their home country.

During some fires, the elders would gather lawn chairs in the parking lot adjacent to the complex and watch the actions of the firefighters. Even when having to rescue people over ladders, the elders sometimes questioned why the firefighters had to physically come into contact with those they were rescuing.

Dealing with the issues at this apartment complex was relatively easy. The Somalians wanted to live in a cloistered area where they felt comfortable with the customs and language of their neighbors.

To that extent, the neighboring fire department pre-incident planned the complex including finding those individuals willing to help not only to interpret in an emergency, but also to explain how to prevent or lessen the frequency and severity of fires within the apartment complex.

3 fires, 3 languages

By comparison, I recently visited with a chief from a mid-sized fire department. Within a month, that department had three residential structure fires across several miles. In each case, the residents spoke only their native language – Senegalese, Spanish and Korean.

The most serious of these was a working kitchen fire in a well-established neighborhood. It was called in by a neighbor from across the street when two windows of the house blew out from the intensity of the fire.

The fire investigation team found that a teenager who spoke Wolof, one of several Senegalese languages, as well as a little French, had been preparing the evening meal for her parents who worked at different locations in the area.

Although she was alerted to the fire by a smoke alarm, tradition and culture dictated that a young woman could not make any major decisions on her own.

When she discovered the fire on the stove, the young girl called her mother at work, who in turn called the father who was working at another location. The father left work, drove to pick up his wife and together were approaching their home as the first fire units were making entry.

Needless to say, the damage to this home was extensive. Fortunately, the teenager correctly decided to evacuate herself and her siblings prior to the fire department’s arrival.

The second fire involved a Spanish speaking family who resided in a recently renovated duplex. The fire began near an entertainment center, but was determined to most likely have been caused by a candle that tipped over.

Multiple candles and incense used primarily for religious purposes were found throughout the house. Batteries in the smoke alarms had been removed prior to the fire, in part because the candles and incense frequently caused them to sound.

While the department distributed bi-lingual fire safety literature, the family had never associated the dangers of using unattended candles that could cause a major fire. Nor had they realized the purpose of the smoke alarms were to alert them of an uncontrolled fire.

The final, and least-serious fire, occurred when this department was dispatched to the report of a structure fire near a major intersection. Responding companies found instead a large open burn in the rear of a structure that they quickly extinguished.

The Korean family, in an attempt to tidy the appearance of their home, had raked the dried leaves in their yard into a large pile and set it on fire for disposal, a standard practice in many areas of Korea. They did not know the restrictions on open burns due to both air-quality standards and existing drought conditions.

Improving communications

In all of these instances, firefighters encountered both a cultural and language barrier that hampered their attempts to communicate with the residents. This brought about a question: How do we know that new immigrants have settled in our area, and how do we communicate with them?

Fortunately, when called, the 911 communications center serving this community can quickly get an interpreter service on the phone to help describe the type of the emergency.

But equally important for the firefighters was how could their department communicate fire and medical safety tips when bilingual materials in that language are not readily available?

The department’s community risk reduction personnel came up with several potential answers.

First, they contacted the local school district to determine what families had registered children that needed assistance in learning English. The school district had already set up a special pre-school for very young children and an after-school program to assist older children with their English, so this request was not difficult for them.

The second contact was with area churches. Two churches had started Spanish language mid-week worship services followed by an adult English language class.

Another nearby church, just out of the department’s immediate response area, had helped start a separate Korean Christian Church with similar goals – to have worship services initially in Korean, but also to help adults and families learn English as a second language.

Using these venues for outreach, the department has begun to translate public education information on fire and car seat safety for these newer arrivals.

While this may not be a perfect solution, it is a start. And it continues the goal of the fire service to serve their entire community with care, consideration and professionalism.

Stay safe.

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