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New Mobile Technology Extends the Reach of Language Services for Public Safety

Author: Jeffrey Munks

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-08-29
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Since 1982, public safety call centers have used over-the-phone interpretation (OPI) services to assist with inbound emergency calls from people speaking languages other than English. 

OPI was borne out of necessity when the influx of refugees to the United States from Indo-China became nothing short of a crisis for 9-1-1 centers struggling to determine the nature of a language-complicated call before dispatching police, fire, and paramedics into a potentially hostile environment.  OPI in the call center solved the problem of determining the nature of an emergency call but it was of little value to the first responder who arrived on the scene to find a house filled with people who spoke little or no English. 

Over the years, 9-1-1 center personnel have struggled to support the first responder in the field during a language-complicated call.  The most common form of help has been to keep the OPI service on the phone after the first responder has arrived at the scene so the interpreter can be used to resolve the situation.  While this approach can work, it is expensive and it can take the dispatcher or call-taker out of service for the duration of the incident. 

Until now, alternatives have been few.  First responders are loath to use their personal or department issue cell phones in order to secure assistance from an OPI service while in the field.  The reasons for their reluctance are obvious.  Using a cell phone in a potentially hostile situation means one less hand that can respond to a threat.  Handing a cell phone to an unknown subject so that he or she can talk to and hear an interpreter means risking the phone being turned into a weapon or being stolen if the subject turns and runs.

Enter ELSA (Enabling Language Services Anywhere).  Created specifically to support hands-free access to OPI services, ELSA is a compact, body-worn device not much larger than a mobile phone that offers immediate access to OPI providers with the push of a single button.  Incorporating a range of leading-edge technologies, ELSA is equipped with an array of four long-range directional microphones and an advanced speaker that outperforms anything found on a cell phone making it possible for first responders to maintain a safe distance from the person they are talking to, with both parties able to clearly hear and communicate through the live interpreter via ELSA.

Emergency medical personnel use the body-worn ELSA device to communicate with a victim who speaks little or no English during the recent Urban Rescue Exercise conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

As with so many technological innovations, ELSA was borne out of need.  Charles Howerton, the founder of RTT Mobile Interpretation (RTT) and inventor of ELSA, worked in a number of industries in which mission critical communications in noise-filled, outside locations were often complicated by the language barrier.  He designed and built ELSA as a ruggedized, multi-purpose device to fill a gap that he could not close with a cell phone or any other existing technology. 

The list of features that Howerton incorporated into ELSA is impressive.  For example, all interpreter requests are routed through a secure network operations center where (at the agency’s discretion) calls can be recorded and stored for later download and appending to a case file, rendering moot a defendant’s claim that he or she did not understand a Miranda warning, an Implied Consent advisement, or any other legally required activity.  Also, the device records in 3D, or Binaural audio which renders an exceptionally clear sound and makes it very easy to detect any attempt at tampering with a recording.

From a 9-1-1 Center perspective, ELSA allows a call-taker or dispatcher to release the OPI service as soon as the first responder is on scene.  From that point forward, the decision to use an OPI service becomes the purview of the responding agency representative and can be accomplished after due consideration of the circumstances in the field.  If the police officer, fire fighter or paramedic decides an interpreter is required at the scene, he or she can use ELSA while call center personnel are freed to handle the next incoming emergency.  And with the training provided by RTT, the makers of ELSA, first responders will learn the most efficient and effective ways to make use of OPI in the field.  Such knowledge will reduce the overall cost of OPI.  It can also do much to improve the trust and respect of a sizeable segment of our population that has historically been reluctant to embrace its role as partners in the joint effort to create safer communities.

According to the latest Census, more than 20 percent of the nation’s population speaks a primary language other than English.  With recent developments on the border between the United States and Mexico, that number could very well rise dramatically in the coming months and years. 

Emergency communications centers and the first responder agencies they support need all the assistance they can get with the ongoing challenge to make good and cost-efficient use of the entire range of available language service resources.  The historical resources; OPI in the 9-1-1 Center, bilingual call center personnel, bilingual first responders, bilingual family or community members, all have their role to play and all should be used when appropriate.  With the introduction of ELSA, emergency service personnel dealing with language complicated contacts in the community have one more tool to add to the kit.

As reported in, The National Organization of Black Law enforcement Executives (NOBLE) named ELSA its “Technology of the Year” for 2014.  Learn more about how ELSA can help close the gap in language-complicated contacts by visiting


Jeffrey Munks, a former San Jose police officer, is the co-founder of Language Line Solutions, the firm that started the OPI industry in 1982.  Mr. Munks served on the original advisory board to 9-1-1 Magazine in 1991.  He currently serves as an advisor and consultant to RTT. 



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