At the Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center, the phone is always ringing.
As dispatchers answer calls for help for police, fire and ambulance needs in the Santa Fe city and county and the Town of Edgewood, plus animal control and more, each sounds different. In one moment, a loose dog on a busy road might require aid; the next could be from a person who needs medical attention due to heart troubles; and plenty of calls come from those whose primary language is not English—most often from someone speaking Spanish.
Service providers say offering language accessibility, including tools such as 24/7 translation services for emergency dispatchers and bilingual training for officers, empowers them to help anyone at any time regardless of English proficiency.
Dispatcher Lauren Lucero started her job at the 911 call center just under a year ago. She estimates to SFR as many as one out of every 10 calls she answers at the center comes from a Spanish speaker. Though she doesn’t speak the language, she says the center’s Voiance software provides an “extremely easy to use” resource to create a three-way call with an audio or video translator for such conversations.
“Usually the caller will call in and, right off the bat…they usually ask or initiate, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’” Lucero says. “We then click the Voiance line, and we click one more number to get us to the correct language that we want to connect to, and it gets you to a live interpreter, which interprets everything that you say in live time. So it’s really, really great.”
RECC data on non-English-speakers shows fewer calls than Lucero’s estimate. Director Roberto Lujan tells SFR out of 160,280 dispatched calls in the last calendar year, 1,942 —approximately 1.2%—were from non-English speakers, with Spanish and American Sign Language topping the list of the most common additional languages dispatchers encounter. Of the RECC’s 34 full-time employees—six are fluent in Spanish.
The proportion of emergency calls from non-English speakers does not correlate, however, to the proportion of people in the region who reportedly speak Spanish as their primary language. A 2023 report from the American Immigration Council found more than 16,000 immigrants lived in Santa Fe County in 2019, making up 11.1% of the total population. Of those immigrants, 4,400 had limited English proficiency—99.8% of them spoke Spanish.
Ray Mancera, who serves as the vice president for the Southwest region at the League of United Latin American Citizens says one reason for Santa Fe’s rate of non-English-speaking 911 callers likely stems from a rocky history with police.
“Some Hispanics see police and say, ‘Great, I’m glad they are here in the community,’” Mancera says. “Other Hispanics, however, do not feel that close to having the right to approach a police officer because they only see them as somebody who can threaten their liberty or civil rights, and that should not be the case.”
The City of Santa Fe established “sanctuary” protections in a 2017 resolution that prohibit employees, including police, from making or initiating “any inquiry regarding the immigration status of any person.”
Mancera recommends ongoing outreach to combat the fear of contacting police. LULAC, for example, has hosted events with law enforcement and other organizations such as the NAACP to introduce youth to police chiefs and build community. He calls a 24/7 translation service “a tremendous asset” and encourages people to use it.
“The problem belongs to all of us if we don’t contribute to reporting crime,” Mancera says. “It’s always been about us versus them, but that should not be the culture of the United States. The police are here to assist, not to incarcerate you and get you into problems.”
Other crisis and emergency services in Santa Fe have stepped up to the call of language accessibility in similar ways. Esperanza Shelter, for example, offers a language interpreter service and has phone lines in both English and Spanish, according to Residential Services Director Sonya Romero. She says both public and private avenues should be in place.
“Specifically in Santa Fe, we have a large immigrant population, and they deserve access to supportive services just as much as anybody,” Romero says. “It really means a lot to the people who maybe are undocumented and don’t have access to other types of support to still be able to access 911 or our emergency crisis hotline and know that they’re going to be helped or be able to communicate what they need in times that can be life threatening and really unsettling and unsteady and scary for them and their children.”
For example, language access to emergency services was a factor in last year’s domestic violence murder of Santa Fe County resident Carmen Navarrate de Gonzales. She reported in court filings that she called 911 when her then-boyfriend beat her in Albuquerque, but the dispatcher there didn’t speak Spanish, and Navarrate de Gonzales hung up before she could get help. Despite police eventually charging Jose Antonio “Adrian” Roman in that incident, he allegedly drove to Santa Fe 16 days later and used a shotgun to kill her and her 15-year-old son.
Albuquerque Police did not respond to SFR’s requests for comment, but police cadets there received new training this year to improve communications with non-English speakers.
Lucero says services like these are important for the crucial access they provide.
“We can truly help anyone at any time. I mean, that’s exactly what a 911 dispatch center does,” Lucero says, “and so we never have to be put in a position where we exclude somebody from help or we don’t get them the correct type of help because of the language barrier.”
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