July 8—Last month, the IJIS Institute, the Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate and Google hosted a Text-to-911 Translation TechFest at the Google campus in Kirkland, Washington. The TechFest was designed to encourage nationwide efforts to improve technologies in support of public safety communications and response. The event included participation from technologists, public safety leaders, language service providers and trade associations such as iCERT – the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologies.
Sending texts to 911 to request help from public safety—fire, emergency medical services or law enforcement—is becoming more common across the U.S. The TechFest brought together key thought leaders on this subject from multiple disciplines to help address current concerns regarding use, implementation and public education around Text-to-911, particularly for people with limited English proficiency who are trying to communicate with public safety officials. According to U.S. Census data more than 60 million people nationwide speak a language other than English in their home; approximately 28 million people are identified as having limited English proficiency. Public safety officials have found in many communities across the country that not long after implementing Text-to-911, public safety emergency call centers begin to receive text communications in languages other than English, necessitating the need for translation.
The TechFest revealed that public safety officials currently depend on machine translation for handling non-English texts to 911 and sought to understand the efficacy of machine-translation software in support of life and safety calls for assistance. The project team also received a commissioned report to understand the accuracy of machine translation, and through the event, demonstrated the use of human interpreters or interpreting services to augment machine translation of non-English texts to 911. As the project moves forward, the TechFest investigation of Language Service Provider (LSP) “coaching” of machine-translation will result in implementation guidance and recommendations for operational and technical issues stemming from the findings. At the national level, the lack of a nationwide program and clear funding stream to support next generation 911 efforts continues to result in a patchwork approach with implementation by jurisdiction, which creates challenges for adoption, standardization, and affordability.
Next steps for the project include additional collaboration between public safety emergency call centers, industry technology providers, and language service providers, to address affordability of a commercially-available, public-safety-grade solution for Text-to-911 translation.
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