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Multilingual interpreting for emergency '119' calls introduced in Tokushima

During a drill for members of the Tokushima City Fire Department in the city of Tokushima, an American woman describes the condition of a male acquaintance to a telephone operator at the city's emergency call center. (Mainichi/Sakura Iwamoto)

TOKUSHIMA -- The fire department in this western Japan city has introduced a multilingual interpretation service at its emergency call center, ready to respond to foreign residents and visitors alike.

The city of Tokushima is known for its "Awa Odori" traditional summer dance festival, which attracts both domestic and foreign tourists.

Some 10 fire department staff members conducted a drill on July 3 simulating an emergency "119" call from a person who needs an ambulance but doesn't speak Japanese. The staff demonstrated to reporters on hand how the emergency call would be through the new system, which launched in May.

In the drill, an American woman called to report that a male acquaintance had collapsed at home. However, unable to speak Japanese, she couldn't communicate with the fire department's telephone operator.

The latter then opened a line to the service center of a private interpretation company contracted by the city government. An interpreter relayed the caller's description of the emergency, and the operator was able to confirm the name and age of the man and give detailed instructions including emergency treatment.

The role of the caller was played by 22-year-old Emily Charlotte Bernier from the United States, who works for the city government to promote international exchange and actually speaks Japanese.

"I can communicate with the telephone operator through the (interpreting company's) service center. I hope the new system will spread to other municipalities," Bernier said.

The service is available in English, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish. The service staff may be able to interpret additional languages depending on the situation. The service had been used in three actual emergency calls as of July 2.

According to the fire department, it received seven 119 emergency calls from foreigners and transported foreigners by ambulance in 30 cases in 2018.

(Japanese original by Sakura Iwamoto and Kazuya Osaka, Tokushima Bureau)

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