Indianapolis firefighters learning Spanish

Capt. Rita Burris, IFD
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New Indianapolis firefighters are now going to learn Spanish. It's part of a new initiative to connect the Latino community with emergency services.

The number of Spanish speakers calling 911 is going down because many are afraid to call. Sometimes they have to find someone who can speak English before making the call for help.

Firefighters and police are struggling to connect with residents who are not comfortable calling them for help, according to Denny And Ruddy Velez.

"Because if I don't know the language and I have to make a phone call that is going to stop me to make the phone call," said Ruddy.

Denny and Ruddy Velez are brothers and for years, the two Dominican natives have worked side by side cutting hair - at times each other's hair. They share more than the same profession. They also have the same concerns about their mother, who doesn't speak English at all.

Not long ago their mother had to call 911. Denny Velez was there to translate.

"The police came over, firefighters and ambulances, everybody was there," Denny said.

But had he not been there, she may not have gotten the care that she needed. That makes both brothers worry even more.

It is an issue not just in their family but across the entire Hispanic community, said Denny.

"There is going to be a communication problem because there are a lot of Latino people right here in Indianapolis that don't know the language," he said.

With a rapidly expanding Spanish language population, the fire department is looking for ways to bridge this communication gap. Captain Rita Burris of the Indianapolis Fire Department says all new recruits are going through Spanish language immersion as part of their basic training.

That's a first for a major fire department.

"There is a definitive language barrier when you are trying to get that added information; something that is not quite obvious. We are very committed to making sure we have a good working relationship with our growing Hispanic population," said Captain Burris.

The Valez family has been in the United States for 12 years. The brothers learned English in order to survive.

"It was hard in the beginning," said Denny. But they say English is more difficult to learn as an adult than Spanish.