For many, 911 is a service often taken for granted. It provides a sense of stability that if an emergency occurs; there will always be a calm voice at the end of the line to ease your fears and send help quickly.

However, this is not always a reality for members of diverse communities, who can be hesitant about the repercussions of calling 911 or confused about when and how to use this service.

“Something needs to be done,” said Ana Sanchez-Birkhead, Associate Professor at the University of Utah College of Nursing and President of the Hispanic Health Care Task Force. “It is a real concern among our community.”

Focus Groups to understand diverse communities’ fear of calling 911.

Sanchez-Birkhead serves on the Board of Community Faces of Utah, a local partnership which encompasses the University of Utah Collaboration & Engagement Team, the Utah Department of Health, and five diverse communities: Best of Africa, Calvary Baptist Church, Hispanic Health Care Task Force, National Tongan American Society, and Urban Indian Center.

The aim of Community Faces of Utah is to create partnerships that will allow for communication and improved healthcare in diverse communities.

Recently, Community Faces of Utah partnered with International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, a non-profit whose goal is to strengthen the effectiveness of emergency dispatch through research and education. IAED conducted focus groups with members of diverse communities to understand their relationship and experiences with calling 911.

Alissa Wheeler is a Research and Technical Writer at International Academies of Emergency Dispatch in Salt Lake City. She, along with Jennifer Hurst, Outreach Coordinator, conducted the focus groups with Community Faces of Utah.

“We knew from research literature that in general, diverse communities do not access the system as much as more affluent white communities do, and even if they do, perhaps the service that they receive is not standard or the same, so we wanted to investigate that in the Salt Lake Valley,” Wheeler said.

The study uncovered multiple fears, concerns, and points of confusion that different diverse communities hold about calling emergency dispatch.

Concerns about calling 911

Wheeler said through the focus groups, she found that members of diverse communities, for various reasons, can be confused about who they are calling when they dial 911, which can be frightening.

“Many of the communities we spoke to considered 911 the same as the police, and with diverse communities, that is fearful for many different reasons- for violence or immigration or just language or culture barriers…,” Wheeler said. “Some people were really concerned about the cost of calling. They were concerned about providing personal information.”

Fear of Police

Matiu Fa, a member of the National Tongan American Society, said he has a lot of respect for emergency dispatchers who answer 911 calls.

“They’re really critical thinkers and they know how to think on their feet and keep the situation calm,” he said.

Fa said he would feel completely comfortable calling 911 for a health-related emergency or a house fire. But, he would be more hesitant to call 911 to report a crime due to a cultural distrust of the police.

“Having them show up for a crime is where it gets kind of sticky… You’re getting involved and they want to involve you, and you don’t know if you’re going to be implicated in what’s going on because now you’re a part of the whole reason why they’re there, he said.

Fa said in some diverse communities, it is common to find a distrust of police.

“There’s a lot of distrust with the police just in general because there’s a lot of negativity promoted in those communities about cops just through incidents… so the general point of view of everyone there is that they’re not on your side,” he said. “Or it’s going to be even more of a hassle to even get them involved.”

Fa said there’s a hesitation to bring the police into a situation due to stories of incidents that occurred to people in the community or negative incidents involving cops on YouTube and in the media.

“To tell you the truth it’s the culture,” he said… You’ve got YouTube now, and you see one bad incident of a cop or hear something in the community because you have someone in a position of power who’s supposed to come here and help you… You don’t know what you’re going to get,” he said.

Valentine Mukundente is a Board Member of Community Faces of Utah and Community Leader for Best of Africa. She said her community includes refugees, who also experience distrust of the police as a barrier to calling 911.

“… they come from countries where they experienced war, people being killed, and they didn’t have a good relationship with the police,” she said. “So, when they call 911, in their mind, they feel like they are calling the police. And that’s scary because, from their background, they don’t have a good relationship with the police.”

Mukundente said from a cultural standpoint, members of her community are not always familiar with laws in America, so there is also fear that they will be punished for unintentionally being found breaking a law if the police show up.

Sanchez-Birkhead said the political climate has created fear in the Hispanic community.

“… whether Hispanics are documented or not documented, they’re treated often as if they are not documented,” she said. “So, there’s some hesitancy and lack of trust in police and healthcare providers… they are hesitant to give their personal information, their address, their phone number…They feel that if they call 911, 911 is going to call the police. If they don’t have documentation, then immigration is going to show up at their door… there’s just a lot of fear,” she said.

For Sanchez-Birkhead, questions about how to solve this problem still remain.

“How do we improve that lack of trust between our community and 911 or the police? How do we improve that relationship of trust and really, we don’t know what to do,” she said. “The need to call 911 is important, and families should feel that they can call 911, that they can trust the service to help them in the way that they need in the case of an emergency.”

She said as a community leader, she can provide information and increase awareness of 911 in her community.

“But can we promise them that it’s a service that they can trust?” she said. “That part, we don’t know.”

Language/ Cultural Barriers

One of the things Wheeler said she heard from every one of the six focus groups was that members of diverse communities wanted someone answering 911 calls who was from their community.

“That actually tracks with a lot of health science research that any kind of service rendered, individuals, want that to be provided by people like them and from their own community, speaking their own language or understanding culturally,” she said.

She also said it was very evident that people wanted to be treated with respect and to be comforted and believed when calling 911.

Mukundente said the language was a barrier for the African community in calling 911.

“…these are refugees and for some of them, English is their third or fourth language, so they’re not fluent in English,” she said. “So that’s the number one challenge because when they call, sometimes, they don’t know how to express themselves well. They don’t know how to explain what’s going on…”

Sanchez-Birkhead said she discovered a lack of awareness in her community about the service 911 offers. She said that some Latin American countries don’t have services like 911. Rather, citizens call the police or an ambulance directly for a health concern, so members of the Hispanic community can experience confusion about which situations require a 911 call.

Another concern, she said, is that when someone calls 911, the dispatcher is not going to understand what they’re saying and is going to be impatient.

“It wasn’t very helpful being placed on hold while they search for someone who speaks Spanish or the dispatchers were rude when they couldn’t communicate in English. That affected their impression of 911 and how useful a service it is for them,” she said.

Sanchez-Birkhead said she has heard stories of families rushing their child or grandmother to the emergency room or calling a neighbor to administer CPR rather than calling 911.

One story she heard was of a grandmother who had a heart attack while home with a child. The child called their parents and the parents rushed home to bring the grandmother to the emergency room. However, once they reached the emergency room, it was already too late to save her.

“Those minutes are so critical when they can call 911 and have an ambulance show up within minutes,” she said.

She said some of the communities that she talked to are very tightly knit and sometimes view their community leaders as a resource to call in times of emergency rather than 911.

Sanchez-Birkhead said that it would be very difficult for her to address the Hispanic community and tell them to trust 911 and that they don’t need to fear it, but offered a solution for emergency dispatch to build trust among community members.

“I don’t know that there’s enough evidence in our community that that’s true,” she said. “What I would say to 911 dispatchers is “please come to our community and please educate our community on how to use 911 that it will be a safe experience for them. That it will be a positive and helpful experience for them. That when they call, someone on the other end is going to be friendly and helpful and accepting and patient with the language barriers.”


Like Sanchez-Birkhead, Fa said that he would like to see police officers come to his community to interact with and get to know the people, as it would help build trust and rapport between the police and members of his community,

“Having the police actually interact with the community, knowing that they’re invested in the people in the right way,” he said. “Because I think a lot of the misconceptions with calling the police is you don’t know who’s going to show up. You don’t know if they woke up with a bad day that day or if they’ve taken home to work.”

Fa said in communities he grew up in, people wouldn’t want to call the cops if they witnessed a crime because they would be the person preaching out on the crime, which would not always go over well with the neighbors.

“… the neighborhood has to interact too,” he said. “…people need to connect more, and all these questions about why we’re having this miscommunication is because there’s no connection.”

Wheeler agrees.

“It always helps when you become human, when the person on the end of the line, either the caller or the person receiving the call is no longer just a voice, but a person because you are familiar with that community and with that person,” she said.

Another solution could be hiring more emergency dispatchers who speak many languages and come from many communities and backgrounds, said Wheeler. She also suggested additional training and support for call-takers to always be respectful and believing of those who are calling.

“We’ve talked to the supervisors at both communication centers here in Salt Lake Valley… they personally believe and also lead their groups to respect all colors regardless of any kind of observable difference- gender, race, language, age…,” she said.

Similarly, Mukundente said communication and involvement in different communities are important to building a relationship and understanding between first responders and diverse communities.

“My message to these different organizations is: you need to get out your door. Don’t just stay in your office and send emails to communities hoping that they’ll come to you. They need to go outside to these communities, know what’s going on in the community, know what are they (community members) are afraid of,” she said. “What makes them happy and get to know each other because socializing has been one of the most popular ways of bridging the gap between these communities and organizations.”

Jenny Hurst, who took part in running the focus groups with Wheeler, said it was powerful for her to learn about the prejudice that diverse communities face.

“I wasn’t really surprised by it because I do hear these things, but it’s so sad to know that it’s happening in our own community sometimes and to be face to face with people who are affected and who are facing bias all the time,” she said.

Hurst said a story was shared at the focus group about someone calling to report that they thought someone was in danger, and when the police showed up, they treated the black man who had called as a suspect when he was just trying to help.

“Many of these communities are just really afraid of the police because most of them have at least one person in their circle who has had a really bad experience with the police,” she said.

Hurst said that she has a great deal of respect for the work that first responders do and that their job is not easy. She said conducting the focus groups helped her to examine herself for implicit biases and recommended that others do the same to ensure that the community is safe for everyone.

“We all need to examine ourselves and see what are our implicit biases. We all have them- it doesn’t make us necessarily a bad person, but it’s what we do with that. We need to seek them out, figure out, “Am I maybe treating someone differently?” And if you are, work on that,” she said. “No one wants to be a racist, but people say things sometimes that are sexist or are racist, and I think this study has been really eye-opening for me to just kind of check myself and be like, “How am I treating people and how can I make sure that I’m treating people equally?”

During the focus group, Hurst and Wheeler were able to correct misconceptions that diverse communities had about 911, such as the belief that police answer 911 calls.

“We just want people to feel safe to call whatever the reason, whether it’s domestic violence, whether it’s a heart attack, whether there’s a kitchen fire,” Hurst said.

Mukundente said she liked that International Academies of Emergency Dispatch acted on the knowledge they gained from diverse communities.

“One thing I liked about the focus group we had with 911 dispatch is they didn’t just listen. After finding out what is not working, right now they are working on their protocols to see how they can make their protocols better,” she said.

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