Visual language translators assisting Prince George's County first responders

The translators use commonly-known visuals to help victims and first responders communicate.

The 2010 census showed that the Hispanic population in Prince George's County is booming. The fact that it has doubled over the last decade means that more and more residents of the county are speaking Spanish as a primary language.

However, for first responders in the area, it's creating a linguistic challenge.

"Yo hablo un poquito de espanol," Prince George's County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said. "I speak very little Spanish, and that's about it."

He's not alone. Bashoor says that about 120 of the county's 700 firefighters - less than one-fifth - are bilingual or multilingual. However, the county has unveiled a new took to break language barriers countywide.

In emergency situations, the county can now deploy a visual language translator that can be used by anyone speaking any language. VLTs are pamphlets that show pictures of various situations that victims and first responders can point to when there's a gap in communication. The graphics convey both basic needs and complex ideas using universally recognized images.

Prince George's County used $56,000 in federal grant money to order 15,000 VLTs to be shared across several departments. Most importantly, though, they're being distributed to the county's five major hospitals, 200 fire engines and ambulances and nearly 2,800 law enforcement officers.

Bashoor said that using these pamphlets saves the vital time it would take to get a translator on the radio or phone.

"To be able to have something like this in our pocket that we can pull out and point to pictures is priceless," he said.

Kwikpoint, the company who produces the VLTs, says the Department of Defense has ordered tense of thousands of the pamphlets to help soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq communicate with locals. The company's CEO, Alan Stillman, says that the product has been standard issue since 2004.

"Every set of boots on the ground gets this," Stillman says. "Show me where it hurts, how much it hurts, what happened...we can do that in a fraction of a second."

For local officials, this saves crucial times during investigations and high-stress situations.

"If law enforcement is unable to communicate effectively with victims and witnesses on the street immediately when a crime occurs, then obviously that's going to hinder our investigations," Principal Deputy State's Attorney Tara Harrison said.