Spanish speakers in Osceola County 911 dispatch center save lives

Sheriff’s office hired its first full-time Spanish-speaking 911 operators

Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez said he has fulfilled his promise to have bilingual Spanish speakers answer the phones in his 911 dispatch center.

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez said he has fulfilled his promise to have bilingual Spanish speakers answer the phones in his 911 dispatch center.

He’s now hired two of them full time to serve his Spanish-only citizens in a growing county where the majority of citizens are Hispanic.

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Maria Bejarano, the newest dispatcher, grew up in a Colombian household speaking Spanish.

Her ability to take emergency calls in English and Spanish means she can answer the call of the most desperate people.

“I have had a couple calls where it’s just open lines, and I hear Spanish speaking and arguing,” Bejarano said. “To anybody who doesn’t know the language, they’re thinking, ‘Maybe they’re just having conversation,’ but I actually can understand what’s going on. Typically, it’s domestic violence or arguments, threats being made.”

An open line means a call was made to 911, but no one is speaking directly into the phone, hoping the dispatcher who answered the call will understand the chatter in the background.

Bilingual deputies fill in on the other dispatcher shifts, ensuring there is now a Spanish speaker available around the clock.

Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez said when the tourist population in his county swells, he’s serving as many as half a million people. And when they need help, more are calling in Spanish.

“What we did is we noticed there was a time we were getting about a thousand calls a month for Spanish-speaking assistance,” Lopez said.

The Sheriff used to rely on a language bank — an interpretation service — but that took time to get a translator on the line, sometimes too much time.

“By the time the interpreter comes on the line, the line will disconnect,” Bejarano said. “But if I understand, I’m able to understand everything going on right away and get the help that they need.”

Bejarano alone handles around 22 calls per day just in Spanish. Half are dire.

Lopez said he’s trying to hire more Spanish speakers, but he’s struggling to find people.

“I think, like, right now, our shortage right now is about 25 [dispatchers],” Lopez said.

Lopez is filling the gap by pulling in full-time deputies who already know how to handle 911 calls.

“We’re making it up with deputies,” Lopez said. “And sometimes our supervisors have to jump on the floor.”

Lopez said he’d also like to add more Creole speakers. He already has a full-time Creole speaker to take care of the growing Haitian community in Osceola County.

His German, Arabic and Portuguese-speaking dispatchers come in handy dealing with the busy tourist district.

Lopez said some of the 911 dispatchers he’s hired, Spanish speakers included, don’t last more than a few weeks because of how complex the job is, how much multi-tasking is involved and, of course, the call subject matter is often very traumatic.

The dispatcher openings are posted here.

Lopez said he’s currently offering one of the highest sign-on bonuses in the area — $3000.

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.