Fla. firefighters try scaling spanish with phonetic 'cheat sheets'


By Mark Pino
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
Copyright 2007 Sentinel Communications Co.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Firefighters responding to a call find a man in pain and surrounded by distressed relatives. Everybody's talking at once, but it's clear that no one at home speaks English.

Rather than waste precious time waiting for a translator, the crew refers to their phonetic "cheat sheets" of key medical phases that help them quickly determine that the man is suffering chest pains.

"Voy a cuidarle bien" or "Voy/ah/kwee-DAR-lay/BEE+een" — Spanish for "I'm going to take good care of you" — they tell the man.

It seems reassuring, even in a heavy Southern drawl.

Last week, Battalion Chief Eric Cruz drilled 90 firefighters, paramedics and EMTs on key phrases so they can better serve residents in a city where the number of Hispanic residents is approaching half the population.

The mock scenario is no longer an uncommon one for Kissimmee firefighters.

"When I started working here [in 1989], you might get a call once a week with a Spanish-speaking family," Cruz said. "Now it's at least once a shift. The demand is there."

Census figures show that 42 percent of Kissimmee's residents are Hispanic, but in the Osceola County school district the Hispanic student population is already at 50 percent.

While the department has each of its three shifts staffed with a bilingual firefighter, help also can come from a radio link, cell-phone call, family, neighbors or the police department, which has more bilingual officers.

Some students took to the format right away, sounding like Spanish speakers as they voiced the words from a workbook designed to help them key in on patients' needs.

"It will help provide better service to residents," said Justin Farmer, a firefighter who took the class Friday. The department plans to make laminated "cheat sheets" standard in every truck.

The goal is to quickly figure out what is wrong with a patient. The questions mostly require yes or no answers, such as whether a person is taking medication, is having trouble breathing, has a medical condition or needs to go to the hospital.

As crews went through the training, Cruz emphasized that all they needed to do was read the phonetic breakdowns in English, and the words coming out of their mouths would sound like Spanish.

Kissimmee Fire Chief Robert King said that communication is crucial in life-and-death situations.

"Anything you can do to make customers feel a little more comfortable is important. If someone is speaking to you, they're going to feel a little more comfortable if they understand what you're saying," King said.

Some firefighters may also decide to take an eight-week conversational Spanish class that the city offers to all employees.

Cruz said the "Command Spanish" program can be adapted for other departments, such as Parks and Recreation and the police department.

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