Language a Barrier to Rescuers : Skills: A Times survey found that the number of bilingual firefighters and police officers is low, and agencies acknowledge it has led to problems.

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When Marisela Fierros jumped out of a window to escape a house fire, she believed that once she was outside, it wouldn’t be difficult to get rescuers to save her 5-year-old son who remained inside the house.

Fierros, a 24-year-old Spanish-speaking mother with limited English skills, said she coaxed, then begged rescuers--firefighters, police and paramedics--in Spanish to please enter the burning home and save her son. The boy, Jesus Castaneda, died and two others perished in a fire that had one of the highest death tolls in recent history.

“I was screaming to please help me. I begged. I yelled. But they told me they were doing all they could. They told me (in English) that I had to jump off the roof,” Fierros said. “I kept telling them to please go inside and save my son.”


Santa Ana fire officials doubt that her pleas were ignored by firefighters, and, in fact, believe it was an ambulance driver and not a firefighter or police officer who persuaded Fierros to abandon her son by jumping from a garage roof.

“I can’t imagine any fireman ignoring her pleas because that is first in their minds,” said Santa Ana Fire Deputy Chief Wayne Bowman. “But there were ambulance personnel there who were first on the scene. . . . Firefighters are trained to look for a rescue situation, especially if they have heard a scream.”

Witnesses recalled a great amount of confusion during the house fire on South Alder Street on Jan. 4. What exacerbated emergency efforts was the large number of people living in the house and the fact that they all spoke Spanish.

Hours after the fire was extinguished, Santa Ana Fire Department spokesman Karl Ellman said investigators were having difficulty determining who was among the dead or injured, or even the names of all 15 people who lived in the five-bedroom home.

The incident, say community leaders, underscores the need for firefighters, police and other emergency personnel in Orange County to have a greater number of employees with bilingual skills.

An informal Times survey of area police and fire agencies found that the number of bilingual firefighters and police officers--those who could speak languages other than English, including Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean--not only is very low, but some agencies acknowledged that it has led to problems where no interpreter is available.


Bowman said the Fire Department has about 60 firefighters, about 30% of the department’s 201 firefighters, who speak Spanish. Santa Ana is 65% Latino.

In the Police Department, 97 officers, about 25% of the 400 sworn officers, speak languages other than English.

But community leaders say that in a city where the minority population is as high as 75%, the chances for police officers and firefighters to come into contact with residents who speak a language other than English is extremely high.

According to area agencies, some police departments call other police agencies such as Garden Grove and “borrow” someone with Spanish, Korean or Vietnamese language capability. At fire scenes, some La Habra firefighters rely on “family, neighbors, bystanders.”

While some departments say there are definite language problems, the consensus is that they are doing an adequate job.

“It’s a problem. Even in investigations. When people come to the front counter, we have a small ration of people who can speak to them. There have been times when we didn’t have anyone who could communicate with them. That’s compounded in the field,” said Corrine Loomis, a Placentia police spokeswoman.


The Placentia Police Department, which is headed by Police Chief Manuel Ortega, is encouraging its officers to learn other languages by offering classes, Loomis said. Some fire and police departments in the county offer incentive pay but employees must qualify for certification.

“This is an absolute necessity in these times,” said Tustin Police Lt. H.D. Williams. “I tell people that the two things the officer of the future will have to be is bilingual and have computer skills.”

Countywide, Asian residents in 1990 more than doubled from 1980, while the Latino population nearly doubled, according to 1990 census figures. Of the county’s 2.4 million residents, 564,828 are Latinos and 240,756 are Asians.

Census figures also showed that of the 2.2 million Orange County residents over 5 years old, nearly one in three speaks a language other than English at home. Of those, more than half say they speak English poorly.

With state and local budget cuts affecting the rate of hiring, officials are hard-pressed to increase the number of bilingual officers and firefighters because the money to pay salaries is just not there, said Bowman and fire chiefs and police representatives in Orange County.

In La Habra, several officers and dispatchers have taken a class called Spanish for Gringos, which teaches the basics of Spanish, said La Habra Police Capt. John Rees.


Rees said the department actively seeks Spanish-speaking candidates for police jobs.

“We consider it very important,” he said.

In Costa Mesa, police officers are being encouraged to learn Spanish, said the department’s training coordinator Hugh Tate.

“In the last 18 months, we’ve had a lot more trying to attain that skill and that helps alleviate a lot of potential problems. Often, something can be very simple but turns into a big frustration because of language,” Tate said.

John Palacio, Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund director in Santa Ana, said the challenge from a governmental standpoint is that employment statistics are not reflecting the community.

“It’s incumbent that local governments pursue aggressively bilingual personnel in trying to service the community you represent,” Palacio said. “Right now, the Santa Ana school district is 70% monolingual and the language these children speak is Spanish.”

“It would be a sad thing indeed if this young boy died because someone didn’t understand the mother,” said Rene Lopez of Anaheim, who won a major civil rights victory as a plaintiff in a federal class-action lawsuit against the Santa Ana fire and police departments more than 16 years ago.

In 1977, when several plaintiffs won their suit, Lopez said that a major thrust of the case was the ability of serving a growing Spanish-speaking community when the city’s Latino population made up about 35%. Yet hardly any Latinos and blacks were on the police and fire departments, he said.


As a result, a federal judge found that both departments used discriminatory practices in hiring and ordered the city to increase the number of Spanish-surname individuals hired by the police and fire departments.

Santa Ana Battalion Chief Jess Hernandez, 50, is the city’s ranking Latino on the Fire Department. He said he believes that in the years since the judge’s order, the department has improved its hiring markedly.

“In fact, our policy when we hire new firefighters, is that we have two lists. A regular list and a bilingual list. And, we will exhaust the bilingual list of applicants before we look on the regular list,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez, who was hired after the lawsuit, said the department has a push to “mirror the ethnic reflection of the community.”

In Fierros’ case, Fierros and friends and relatives of those who survived the fatal fire complained that firefighters took as much as 20 minutes to get to the address, and that once there, ignored the mother’s pleas to enter the burning house and save her child.

“The firefighters took 20 minutes to get there. And the little kid, Marisela’s son, was in the window looking out. She was screaming in Spanish for them to help her. But the firefighters did nothing. The little kid died because of the firefighters,” said Adriana Leal, a niece of Rosie Sanchez, who owned the home where Fierros lived.


Fierros said that when she pleaded for help, flames had not reached the upper floor bedroom where her son was. She believes that firefighters could have propped a ladder on a garage roof and climbed up to help save her son.

Fire Department officials denied the allegations.

Firefighters and police officers are trained to keep a cool head and a sharp eye when responding to emergencies, Bowman said. Bowman said that his captains and battalion chiefs are also trained to develop a logical thought pattern when they arrive at a house fire to help develop a strategy and deploy their firefighters.

They are taught how to distinguish between perceived threats and those that are real, he said. And they act quickly--at times dealing with hysterical, and often incoherent survivors within a few seconds.

“The highest priority in firefighting is saving lives,” said Santa Ana Battalion Chief Hernandez. Other fire officials said firefighters “can’t walk through walls” and save people.

According to their log, the telephone call notifying the department of the fire was received at 4:39 p.m. Two minutes later, the first fire engine arrived. That engine crew was less than half a mile away and had just cleared from a call at a cinema in the Hutton Centre, Hernandez said.

“As far as bilingual capabilities, my first guy who carried a hose into the house is bilingual. He’s not Hispanic, but he’s bilingual,” Hernandez said.


The battalion chief said his firefighters using “normal procedures” would have found the boy and other victims because procedure calls for making a complete, room to room search of the house.

But when flames get too intense, firefighters are only human. They get hurt “just like the rest of us,” Hernandez said.

Firefighters place a premium on saving lives, but often when they pick up a hose or ladder to gain entry into a burning building, it can be misconstrued by bystanders that they are ignoring attempts to save a life, he said. Especially when interior temperatures are hot enough to melt metal.

“We can’t get in, our suits will burn. We don’t have what they call ‘close proximity suits,’ and they will burn. But we have to knock the flames down before we can make a search” or they can jeopardize the life of a firefighter, Hernandez said.

Initial reports, Hernandez said, also revealed that the first officer called for two extra fire engines because flames were coming out of the house’s upper floor windows and the officer was worried that fire might spread to adjacent homes.

Times staff writer Greg Hernandez and Times correspondent Shelby Grad contributed to this report.


Language Limitations

Comparatively few police officers and firefighters in Orange County speak Spanish, Vietnamese or other languages. Community leaders believe the number of bilingual officers and firefighters should be increased. Here’s the situation:

Police Officers

Spanish Vietnamese Force Department speakers speakers total Note Anaheim 40 0 351 (1) Brea 3 0 83 Buena Park 11 0 86 Costa Mesa 6 0 138 Cypress 6 0 53 (2) Fountain Valley 5 0 62 Fullerton 14 0 160 Garden Grove 10 3 166 (3) Huntington Beach 17 1 229 (4) Irvine 6 0 120 Laguna Beach 7 0 46 La Habra 7 0 62 La Palma 1 0 24 (5) Los Alamitos 2 0 24 Newport Beach 12 0 150 Orange 21 1 139 Placentia 5 0 52 San Clemente 8 0 49 Santa Ana 91 2 400 (6) Seal Beach 2 0 35 Tustin 10 0 89 Westminster 6 2 96 (7) O.C. Sheriff 102 4 1,264 (8)

(1) 1 speaks German (2) 1 speaks Chinese (3) 1 speaks Korean (4) 3 know sign language (5) 1 speaks Danish (6) 3 speak Korean, 1 speaks Samoan (7) 1 speaks German (8) 4 speak German; 2, Japanese; 2, French; 1, Farsi; 1, Korean; 1, Slavic; 1, Arabic, and 2 know sign language

Note: Orange County Sheriff’s Department covers the cities of Dana Point, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano, Stanton and Villa Park. Brea Police Department also serves Yorba Linda.


Spanish Force Department speakers total Note Anaheim 41 207 Brea 0 50 Buena Park 2 54 Costa Mesa 2 108 Fountain Valley 4 37 Fullerton 5 85 Garden Grove 4 94 Huntington Beach 5 145 Laguna Beach 6 40 La Habra 1 32 Newport Beach 5 101 (1) Orange 4 108 San Clemente 0 30 Santa Ana 60 201 (2) Westminster 5 70

(1) 2 speak German, 1 speaks French, 1 speaks Italian (2) 1 speaks French, 2 speak German

Note: The Orange County Fire Department, which does not keep statistics on its number of bilingual firefighters, protects the cities of Dana Point, Cypress, Laguna Hills, Irvine, Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, La Palma, Los Alamitos, San Juan Capistrano, Placentia, Stanton, Seal Beach, Tustin, Villa Park and Yorba Linda.


Source: Individual departments