Frederick County to improve translation services for 911 calls

November 8, 2023

This article was originally published by GabrielleBienasz on Frederick News Post on August 25.

Frederick County's Division of Emergency Management is improving its translation and location capabilities in the next two months and later expanding some offerings to other first responders in the field, authorities said.

This includes on-demand translators available digitally to police or firefighters while interacting with residents, according to Jack Markey, director of emergency management for Frederick County.

Those on-demand human translators are available in over 350 languages, including sign languages, Markey said in a phone interview.

‍The new services will be provided through Baltimore-based company Convey911, according to a county press release.

Translation services provided through Convey911 aim to reduce the time it takes to connect with people who do not speak English or speak it as a second language, Markey said.

"When you add a language difference to what already may be a life-threatening, emotional experience, it's just another barrier towards us saving lives and reducing harm," he said.

The new products will boost translation services and add location capabilities, Markey said.

Funding for the improvements came from Maryland's 9-1-1 Board.

Currently, if someone calls 911, the emergency communications staff will obtain a translator, if needed, on the phone, through a company called CyraCom, formerly known as Voiance, Markey said.

Because that service is charged by the minute, Frederick County will likely keep it available, but also add new services with increased capabilities from Convey911, he said.

That will happen in two phases.

In phase one, to roll out Sept. 1, Convey911 will be added to the emergency communication's staff technology setups and provide services including automatic language detection for phone calls.

Automatic language detection means emergency communication officials do not have to determine the language — preventing, for example, a request for a translator for Spanish, only to find out it's actually Catalan, Markey said.

For emergency communications, seconds and minutes can be "the difference, at times, between saving a life and not," he said.

Convey911's technology can detect what language is being spoken and what language the phone is programmed to use, Katherine Kennedy, director of communications at Convey911, said in a phone interview.

The first phase also will have automatic translation for text message conversations with 911 in 170 languages, Markey said.

Previously, if someone texted 911, and was not writing in English, the emergency communications staff would have to call for a translator, he said.

In phase one of the upgrades, emergency communications specialists will be able to see automatic transcription and translation on screen when people call in and speak languages other than English, then could text that person, to communicate while waiting for a translator by phone.

In the second phase, emergency communication specialists in Frederick County, beginning Oct. 1, will have access to a pool of over 22,000 on-demand human translators from Convey911 in 350-plus languages, Markey said.

Convey911 provides translators through a partnership with a company called Volatia, Kennedy said. That pool of people is specifically trained on 911 calls and can be accessed in 30 seconds or less.

Convey911's service will likely improve the speed of 911 dispatchers' access to translators, Markey said.

However, as soon as 911 call-takers have a location, first responders are dispatched, even while waiting for a translator, he said.

Markey is talking with the Frederick Police Department and Frederick County Sheriff's Office about the new services.

Currently, Frederick police officers call on colleagues who speak various languages for translation on the scene, and, if they can't, call for help from the emergency communications staff to use the translator line, Frederick police spokesperson Samantha Long wrote in a text message.

Another addition through the new partnership with Convey911 is the ability to detect vertical location, or altitude, of a caller, Markey said.

Vertical location is not as common of an issue in Frederick County's emergency response as it would be in a highly urban environment, he said.

However, knowing if a call is coming from 60 feet above the ground in a multi-story building downtown would likely send first responders to higher floors, rather than worrying about the entire building, Markey said.

Convey911 can obtain vertical location of callers through a partnership with RapidSOS and NextNav, the county's press release said.

Convey911 can also send text message requests to people who were transferred to 911 through another entity, such as 211, so 911 dispatchers can view their locations, the release said.

Previously, dispatchers might have had to ask people to hang up and dial 911, so there would be location information, Markey said.