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Japan city launches interpreting service for 119 emergency calls covering 11 languages

A staff member of the municipal fire department of Nabari, Mie Prefecture, is seen pressing a button on a touchscreen that connects to a multilingual call center in Tokyo, as part of training for taking non-Japanese emergency calls on April 24, 2020. (Mainichi/Tatsuo Eto)

NABARI, Mie -- A fire department in this western Japan city has launched an interpreting service that covers up to 11 languages to respond to 119 emergency calls from foreign residents and tourists.

The municipal fire department in the Mie Prefecture city of Nabari has signed a contract with a call center in Tokyo offering simultaneous interpretation for multiple languages. The fire department is now able to offer 24/7 interpreting services for calls in the five languages of English, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish. For the six languages of Thai, Vietnamese, Russian, French, Tagalog, and Nepalese, interpretation is available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The implementation of such a service is the fourth of its kind in Mie Prefecture, following cities including Suzuka and the prefectural capital of Tsu.

When the fire department's control center receives a call from a non-Japanese speaker, it connects the call to the Tokyo call center by pressing the "foreign language call" button on a touchscreen panel. The interpreter and the control center staffer then communicate with the caller in the three-way call to obtain essential details, allowing for quicker responses to emergency situations.

Furthermore, firefighters dispatched to the scene can receive interpreting services by contacting the call center by cell phone.

Nabari had 1,073 foreign residents as of April 1. Emergency calls in foreign languages remain small in number, with zero in 2018 and only one in 2019. However, the caller in the latter case could not convey the address of the scene, and firefighters were dispatched based on landmarks including nearby stores. A representative of the fire department commented, "We implemented the service as it is predicted that calls in foreign languages will increase once the Tokyo Olympics is held. We also think that it will expand the scope of residential services."

(Japanese original by Tatsuo Eto, Nabari Bureau)

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