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New Orleans Embraces Multilingual Emergency Dispatch

Orleans Parish has become an early adopter of a new Carbyne 911 translation platform, reflecting a larger trend in public safety. What lessons have been learned so far, and what might happen next?

People on a decorated street in New Orleans.
“I am bleeding.”

Say that to an emergency dispatcher in the U.S., and you’ll trigger a relatively quick response by medical personnel — assuming you say it in English.

Say that in Spanish — “Estoy sangrando” — and you should hope that the dispatcher is a native speaker, remembers their high school or college foreign language classes, has some on-the-job translation training, or that a human translator is available through a third-party service. If not, you might be waiting for what can seem like an eternity in an emergency situation.

In Orleans Parish, which shares a common boundary with New Orleans, officials are trying to replace that hope with technological certainty.

It’s part of a larger trend in public safety to use cloud-based software and artificial intelligence to reduce the life-threatening hassles that can arise from having to translate 911 calls in real time — a trend that promises to gain even more steam in 2024.

Using a freshly launched tool from emergency communications tech firm Carbyne, the Orleans Parish Communications District is cutting significant time when it comes to translation, Karl Fasold, the agency’s interim executive director, told Government Technology.

The general idea is to compliment or replace the third-party, human-based translation services contracted by 911 centers with an AI-based call management platform. It can detect a caller’s native language within seconds and provides real-time translation to the dispatcher via transcriptions on their screens.

The goal is to provide two-way translations quickly enough that emergency responses are not hindered by communication confusion — as Fasold put it, with a delay of half a second to two seconds, which he called “close enough for government work.”

That may seem flippant. But Fasold, who describes himself as “very conservative,” is deadly serious about better translation tech for emergency call-takers and dispatchers.

After all, New Orleans not only puts on the most famous Mardi Gras in the country — an event that attracts some 1.5 million revelers — but hosts conventions and cruise ship ports, with up to 19 million people visiting the city annually right before the pandemic gutted tourism.

Not only that, but the area has a substantial population of refugees who arrived after the Vietnam War, and relatively new Latino residents, many of whom came after Hurricane Katrina.

“The two biggies here are Spanish and Vietnamese,” Fasold said, though dozens of languages are spoken in that city when one considers the tourists.

Fasold said that when his agency uses a translation service, it can take up to 30 seconds “to get a translator on board.” In fact, research shows that 911 response times in the U.S. can increase by 125 percent when callers don’t speak English as their first language.

It’s not only the foreign language that presents a barrier. It’s how speakers of those foreign languages use slang, and how they speak under immense stress, which human beings not trained in emergency dispatch could miss no matter how well they are trained in translation.

“With a human translator, you get an interpretation and not a translation,” Alex Gruber, the company’s vice president of product management, told Government Technology via email. “When this happens, the call taker loses critical content since the human paraphrases and leaves out what the translator thinks is not important (but may be important to 911). With computers, there is no emotion or personal interpretation involved in the translation.”

Carbyne provides live translation to seven emergency dispatch centers, Gruber said. New Orleans is among the first to use the newest tool, and its experiences likely will guide upcoming efforts to sell this tech to more agencies.

“In an industry that is reluctant to change, only a few centers are brave enough to test new technology,” is how Gruber put it in the email interview.

But change seems certain one way or another thanks in large part to staffing shortages, especially of bilingual dispatchers. Frederick County, Md., is among the governments working to improve their emergency dispatch translation capabilities, including sign language, via government technology vendors, according to a recent report.

That vendor is Convey911, which almost a year ago raised a seed funding round of an undisclosed amount, and which provides services in 350 languages. The company launched in 2020, according to Crunchbase.

Other vendors in this general area include 911 livestreaming firm Prepared — the company says it provides text translation for more than 130 languages — while Minnesota gives an example of a state using AI to step up its translation game.

Carbyne, which is nearly a decade old and has raised more than $126 million, according to Crunchbase, has already learned lessons from its experiences in emergency dispatch translation, Gruber said.

For example, call centers must be able to handle conversations in which languages switch during a single conversation.

“We have found that people may start out speaking one language and dynamically switch between English and another language mid-sentence, so the AI model needs to be able to handle that on the fly,” he said.

As for Fasold, he said that his agency, focused for now on Spanish, will in the first quarter of 2024 have “90 languages or more” available to it via the Carbyne tool. Another change he foresees is full use of the two-way translation feature, which will enable Orleans Parish to send out to callers a “computer generated voice in Spanish asking questions.”

Fasold said he’s not sure if Orleans Parish will get rid of its third-party translation service.

“I don’t think we will ever lose the need for human translators completely,” he said, adding that they remain the best option for giving CPR instructions to callers, asking them to secure pets before first responders arrive, to put on porch lights and similar tasks.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.