June 13, 2022
Richmond Fire Department teams with VCU to help overcome language barriers
Having someone on a fire or medical emergency call who speaks Spanish can bring calm to some situations, said Richmond firefighter Cody Oliver.
Share this story
Responding to a fire or medical emergency often results in tense moments for firefighters as well as anyone who has called 911 for help if there is a language barrier. The situation can become overwhelming and scary for anyone who doesn’t understand what is going on and can’t provide information.
That’s the type of scenario that Richmond Fire Department Battalion Chief Bailey Martin hopes to rectify by getting help from the Virginia Commonwealth University Community Action Council and council member Anita Nadal, an assistant professor in the VCU School of World Studies and faculty fellow for community engagement in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
“EMS is a big part of our workload. We field 35,000 calls a year, the majority of which are medical emergencies. It’s very difficult if the people don’t speak English,” Martin said. “We are trying to address that in our recruitment of firefighters. We are trying to get candidates who are bilingual, but it’s almost impossible.”
Learning key phrases
VCU is stepping in to help firefighters converse with the Latino population. Nadal and one of her students, Abigail Andrade, recently conducted a Zoom session with Richmond firefighter and Community Action Council member Jonathan Clarke to help him with Spanish phrases he can use when responding to a call.
“The fire department wants to be inclusive of the various cultures around the city,” Clarke said.
Andrade, a rising fourth-year student majoring in biology, physics and Spanish who volunteers as an EMT in Chesterfield County and a nurse at CrossOver Healthcare Ministry, has experienced the challenges that cultural and language barriers can create.
“Anita [Nadal] reached out to me to ask about my thoughts on helping the Richmond Fire Department and I told her about my experiences with Spanish-speaking patients,” Andrade said. “I have taught Jonathan [Clarke] some Spanish phrases to use with any Spanish-speaking person he comes across on the job. I want to continue working with the fire department.”
She thinks it’s important for students to help out the community.
“We have the opportunity to share our knowledge and skills in order to better the lives of others.
“In turn, we learn so much from other people and gain new perspectives about life. Students gain a deeper sense of empathy and gratitude through helping the community. Through volunteering, I have broadened my horizons and found my passion in helping others,” she said.
Nadal has taught Spanish to Richmond firefighters in the past, Martin said.
“We think it’s time to do that again. We don’t need for them to be fluent in Spanish, but we do want to focus on key phrases that are job specific,” said Martin. “Questions like, ‘Who is hurt?’ ‘Is everyone out of the house?’”
Nadal, who has had a working relationship with the Richmond Fire Department since 2006, believes she and her students can help the department in a variety of ways.
“We can provide a diverse student body who are bilingual and come from diverse backgrounds, which helps with cultural competency,” she said. “Some students are EMT certified, which helps too.”
Understanding the diversity of the Latino community
According to the 2020 U.S. census, Latinos represent 7.1% of the city’s population, which as of the census was 226,610. It is predicted the percentage will continue to increase.
When Nadal spoke at the fire department’s diversity and equity meeting last fall, she talked about the importance of knowing some basic Spanish and understanding that Latinos come from different backgrounds and ethnic groups.
“We are not a homogeneous race. We each have our own culture and traditions — Mexican, Peruvians, Cubans, etc.,” she said.
Martin’s goal to recruit bilingual firefighters was reinforced when the fire department helped with a vaccination clinic in the city. Richmond firefighter Cody Oliver, who speaks Spanish, was on hand for the event.
“We had some Spanish-speaking people come, and when they saw Cody [Oliver] was speaking Spanish, everyone started coming to him for help. It really opened my eyes as to what a great value that would be. I wondered how many needs have not been met because of this barrier,” Martin said. “I want to fix that.”
Oliver, who graduated from VCU with a bachelor’s degree in education in 2008 and a master’s in elementary education in 2011, is a member of the Community Action Council. He took Spanish from Nadal after he graduated.
“I was working with a Latino population. I had learned Spanish through traveling, but I wanted to get more fluent in it. I took the classes at VCU for my own personal development,” he said.
It helps to have someone who speaks Spanish on a fire or medical emergency call because “it calms the situation. You can find out their symptoms and medical background,” he said. “It may help people to become more comfortable with people in uniform.”
Having someone who can explain what’s going on is important, he added.
“When no one speaks the language, a family member might get used as an interpreter. You don’t know if that person is conversational or knows medical English or Spanish. You can’t just count on a family member.”
Going to a diverse school like VCU has helped him, Oliver said.
“It makes me proud to have graduated from VCU. It’s neat to see how much the university cares and wants to be involved in the community. That creates more opportunities for VCU students,” he said. “Professor Nadal is great about connecting students with opportunities.”
Battalion Chief Martin wants to continue to partner with the university to see how the two entities can work together to engage the community.
“I’m looking forward to the ideas they have and how we can make them happen,” he said. “We want to have an impact on and help people. It takes a team effort. We want to be part of that effort.”
Subscribe to VCU News
Subscribe to VCU News at newsletter.vcu.edu and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox.