Helping callers in their own language during an emergency

Publication date 12.9.2022 15.31
News item
A woman in Emergency Response Centre Agency's uniform with headphones on at a computer.

The emergency number 112 receives more than 2.7 million emergency calls every year. The person making the emergency call and the emergency response centre operator do not always share a common language. In these cases, an interpretation service is used, and its usage has increased every year.

The Emergency Response Centre Agency has a statutory obligation to receive emergency calls in Finnish and Swedish. In practice, emergency response centre operators (ERC operators) also process all English-language emergency calls without intermediaries.

However, there are cases in which there is no common language between the person making the emergency call and the ERC operator. In this case, a 24/7 interpretation service can be used to help the ERC operator to find out the information essential for risk assessment and handling the task. In practice, interpretation is implemented through a conference call between the interpreter, the emergency caller and the ERC operator. The interpretation service has been used at the Emergency Response Centre Agency since 2013.

– The challenge with the service is that the operator must find out the language to be interpreted as quickly as possible in order to find the right interpreter. It is important that the caller wait for the interpreter to be reached and not hang up the call in the middle of the conversation. However, often the caller's family member, usually a child, speaks Finnish or at least English, so they can help with the emergency call. This can speed up the process of getting help, says Tommi Hopearuoho, Head of Quality at the Emergency Response Centre Agency.

ERC operators can use the interpretation service in 84 different languages. Over the years, the main need for interpretation has focused on Russian and Arabic, which have been the most widely interpreted languages this year too. 

In the first half of 2022, the interpretation service was used 217 times and the service included 20 languages. By far the most common language to be interpreted was Russian, with 134 instances. The second most interpreted language was Arabic (26), followed by Ukrainian (12). During the entire year 2021, 169 interpretations were made in Russian, 36 in Arabic and 3 in Ukrainian. Other languages interpreted between January and June this year included Estonian, Persian, French, Somali, Spanish, Dari, Sorani, Mandarin, Albanian, Italian, Cantonese, Latvian, Polish, Romanian, German, Czech and Uyghur.

On an annual level, the number of interpretations has increased every year. While a total of 116 interpretations were performed in 2013, a total of 295 interpretations were performed in 2021. As there were only 78 fewer interpretations in January–June this year than in the whole of last year combined, the rising trend will continue. Since the service began to be used, Russian has been the most interpreted language, and Arabic has been the second most interpreted language since 2015. Other languages have accounted for 0–12 interpretations per year.

Technical solutions increase equality

Most ERC operators proficient in both national languages work at the emergency response centres in Vaasa, Turku and Kerava. However, in the network-based operating model of the emergency response centres, the location of the ERC operator no longer has the same significance as before, as the emergency call can be directed through the emergency response centre information system to any of the six emergency response centres in Finland. In this way, calls in Swedish can also be transferred to the common call queue of ERC operators who have a good command of both national languages.

Emergencies can also be reported by sending a text message to the emergency number 112. The use of emergency text messages is primarily aimed at people who cannot hear or produce speech, but the service is available to anyone who has registered their number in advance. 

– However, a call is always a safer option than a text message, as receiving information about the emergency is slower with text messages, there may be delays in delivering text messages, and messages can also go undelivered, Hopearuoho says. 

In June 2021, Kela and the Emergency Response Centre Agency launched a pilot project to allow people to make emergency calls in Finnish sign language using the 112 Suomi application. The pilot will run until the end of 2022.

– The interpretation service and various technical solutions help us to offer help to everyone as quickly as possible and to focus on equality, says Hopearuoho.

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Illustration picture replaced 9.12.2022.