by Levi Herrera-Lopez,

Emergency managers throughout the Mid-Valley, and indeed throughout the state, would be well advised to assess their resources for reaching Non-English speakers during a crisis, as evidenced by Salem’s water advisory.

In Marion County alone, at least 10% of the population speaks English less than “very well” — that is, roughly 35,000 persons — according to recent population estimates.

Unless emergency management includes ways to simultaneously alert Non-English speakers, even smaller communities (such as Keizer or Independence) will see hundreds of people who will not understand safety instructions from public officials.  Such was the experience in Salem, where, at the outset, non-English speakers were unable to understand the alerts from the Office of Emergency Management and the City of Salem’s social media postings.  To the City’s credit, they made incremental improvements to their multilingual language strategy, to the point where now all messages on social media are bilingual.  City Council meetings also feature translation to American Sign Language.    

As a community advocate, I am confident that the City of Salem is now better prepared to handle the next crisis.  Their experience should be a wake-up call to emergency managers everywhere.   

If I were an emergency manager, I’d ask my team the following questions and develop a plan based on those initial responses:

        How many speakers of languages other than English do we have on our team?

        What is their literacy and fluency level in those languages?

        Do we have emergency alerts prepared to go in multiple languages?

        If the emergency management team doesn’t have any multilingual speakers, are any on    

          staff in-house?

        What is their literacy and fluency level in those languages?

        Can they be trained to assist the communications     

        Who are our partners in responding to a crisis, and what is their multilingual capacity? 

Almost all responses will require agencies to allocate financial and human resources to design and be ready to implement an emergency response in more than one language.

Eventually, given enough time, all of these pieces can fall in place.  However, the more that can be done from the outset of a crisis, the more lives that can potentially be saved.

In a crisis event where split-second decisions must be made, confusion, misinformation, and lack of information could prove to be fatal.

It should be unacceptable to all that even a few hundred of our neighbors could be deprived of potentially lifesaving information.

Levi Herrera-Lopez has been the Executive Director of Mano a Mano Family Center, since 2008.  He has worked with Latino and Immigrant families in Marion-Polk Counties since 1997, as a member of Mano a Mano’s team (in various capacities).  Levi is a native of Michoacan state, in Mexico, and has lived in Salem since 1992.  Levi’s family is a multilingual, multicultural, and multiracial family.  Mano a Mano is one of the oldest Latino and Immigrant-led community-based organizations in Marion and Polk Counties.  Mano a Mano works with Low income and immigrant families experiencing critical personal and family stressors.  Their vision is that our region be a community of justice, where all children thrive in strong, safe and nurturing families.