Spanish-speaking residents in San Luis Obispo County may struggle to understand emergency information distributed locally during emergencies.
The county’s emergency communication system — which includes a reverse-911 service, wireless emergency alerts and social media messages — doesn’t broadcast messages in Spanish, according to Ron Alsop, manager for the Office of Emergency Services.
And if a disaster like the Thomas Fire — which started Dec. 4 and has burned more than 270,000 acres and destroyed at least 1,000 structures across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties — were to strike the area, a lack of such alerts could cost lives, advocates say.
“Often what happens is, in the chaos, some of the most vulnerable folks are left behind,” said Lucas Zucker, policy director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, a social justice nonprofit based in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Spanish-language alerts in SLO County
In San Luis Obispo County, 22 percent of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, and 19 percent of households speak a language other than English, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Emergency preparedness materials are provided in Spanish, but only portions of the county’s website are translated.
Those in search of information can select Google translations of English-only pages, although that option is known for being less than perfect. All of the county’s social media accounts post information only in English.
Wireless emergency alerts that transmit loud messages to residents’ phones — frequently weather warnings or Amber Alerts — are part of a federal system that doesn’t currently send messages in Spanish, but an update will soon provide that option.
The county’s reverse-911 system, which allows the Sheriff’s Office to transmit countywide emergency messages to those who have signed up, doesn’t offer a Spanish option, according to spokesman Tony Cipolla.
“The Sheriff's Office would definitely consider a Spanish-language option,” Cipolla said. “But the current vendor we contract with for that system does not offer that option.”
Alsop said Emergency Services employs Spanish speakers and would offer translated messages if an emergency was located in an area with a population that might require alerts in another language.
“We want to make sure everybody gets the message,” he said.
Even so, Zucker said smaller populations of Spanish speakers can be particularly vulnerable when they can’t find information in a language they understand.
“That almost makes it somewhat more necessary when you have a more isolated immigrant community,” he said.
Santa Barbara County expands its Spanish options
In Santa Barbara County, where 45 percent of residents identify as Latino or Hispanic and 40 percent of households speak a language other than English, officials send out emergency alerts in both languages, according to Gina DePinto, the county’s communications manager.
She said the push to post information in both languages started during last year’s wildfires.
The city has also been posting updates on Facebook and Twitter in both Spanish and English, which DePinto said has sometimes caused English speakers to ask questions. She said they’ve tried to be “conscientious” of posting messages in both languages at the same time to avoid confusion.
“The English speakers are like, ‘Why is this all in Spanish?’ ” she said. “We need to take care of all audiences.”
The county has already set up a separate Spanish-language Twitter account and plans to do the same for Facebook, DePinto said.
“I would like them to be very robust,” she said. “So it’s like a one-stop shop for Spanish speakers.”
The county also sends Spanish speakers to do interviews on Spanish-language radio stations and provides video updates on emergencies in Spanish, as well.
Legally, the United States does not have an official language, Zucker noted. Even though “the vast majority” of immigrant families speak English, he said it also takes time to achieve fluency.
“In the meantime, we don’t want people dying in a fire because they don’t know English,” he said.