Thread: Language Barriers on the line
08-18-2003, 03:55 AM #1
Language Barriers on the line
SALEM, Ore. (AP) - One day during last year's Biscuit Fire in
southern Oregon, a fire crew got word the blaze was approaching so
rapidly that everyone needed to evacuate the area.
They yelled a warning to a Hispanic crew digging a fire line,
but no one on that crew understood. They looked around, confused.
Members of the English-speaking crew ran toward the Hispanic
crew, waving their arms in an attempt to communicate. Eventually,
they found someone who could translate and no one was hurt.
"That's a dangerous situation," said Ed Daniels, training
manager for the Oregon Department of Forestry, who investigated the
"Knock on wood that no one has died" because of language
barriers, Daniels said.
Over the past five years, Hispanics have rushed to firefighting
jobs. In Oregon and Washington, the contractors who employ a
majority of firefighters across the country estimate that Hispanics
make up more than 60 percent of their crews.
The prevelance of Spanish on fire lines has prompted a safety
debate among contractors. And the Pacific Northwest Wildfire
Coordination Group, which oversees national contract crews, has
strengthened language requirements.
On any 20-person crew, the crew boss and the three assistant
squad bosses must speak English fluently. All fire communication on
the radio must be in English. And firefighting officials are making
greater efforts to keep crews without the minimum English
requirements from working.
Some contractors say they prefer to hire Hispanics - regardless
of language barriers - because they work hard for low wages.
"Many white kids just don't want to work the way Hispanics
will," said Jack Neuman, executive director of the Oregon Minority
Contractor's League, an association of 17 contracting groups that
work out of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Neuman said 98 percent of
the firefighters in the association are Hispanic.
Budget problems and shifting demographics also are pushing
Hispanics onto fire lines.
In the 1980s, the federal government reduced money for forestry
programs - including pay for career firefighters. Government
agencies then turned to contractors, which provided the service at
In the 1990s, thousands of Hispanics, mostly migrant farmers,
moved to the Northwest - many settling in Oregon's fertile
Willamette Valley. They are now the largest minority group in
Oregon and Washington state.
Huge fires in the West over the past few years have increased
the demand for fire crews. In 2001, the Pacific Northwest Wildfire
Coordination Group contracted 106 crews. This year, it's hired over
Many employers refuse to hire Hispanic firefighters who don't
speak English, arguing that language barriers create avoidable
"Fires are spoken in English," said Rick Dice, president of
the National Wildfire Suppression Association, which comprises 125
contracting members in Western States. "We have a problem there
with Spanish being spoken on fires."
Dice said the lack of English usually means crews with little
experience on fires.
Emilio Coria, who has been fighting fires eight years and speaks
fluent English, said most Hispanic firefighters are farm workers
who don't speak much English or don't have much experience dousing
flames. But, he said, thanks to their background in the fields they
are used to working outside.
"We have farming in our blood," said Coria, 29.
For competitive reasons, contractors won't say how much they pay
their firefighters. They are, however, required to at least pay the
minimum wage in the state where they are based.
Those willing to work up to 14 straight days at 12 hours per
day, tolerate sweltering temperatures and risk possible injury can
earn more as firefighters during a busy fire season than working on
At Oregon's minimum hourly wage of $6.90, plus overtime,
firefighters can earn over $5,000 for two months of work. Food and
lodging are provided.
The pay attracted Vicente Ramirez, 58, a first-year firefighter
from Mexico. After years of picking grapes in California and apples
in Washington state, Ramirez, who speaks no English, said he wanted
to make more money.
"There isn't another job that pays like this," Ramirez said.
The Oregon Department of Forestry, which oversees fire
contractors for Oregon and Washington, this year has sent home six
crews before they even started working because they didn't meet the
State budget problems, however, have delayed the department from
hiring two new people to investigate complaints surrounding
"We are understaffed to do everything we hope to do," said
Bill Lafferty, head of Oregon's fire program.
The trend toward Hispanic crews isn't likely to reverse soon.
Antonio Torres, a 25-year-old farmworker from Mexico who decided
to try firefighting this summer, wonders how long English will be
the official fire language.
"The ones who don't speak Spanish are in more danger," said
Torres, who doesn't speak English.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)Proudly serving as the IACOJ Minister of Information & Propoganda!
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08-29-2003, 12:14 AM #2
- Join Date
- Feb 2002
- New South Wales, Australia
Firefighting is about Safety. Safety demands clear Communications and Comprehension. Person's who do not speak fluently the operational language of the fireline (English in the case of the USA) have no place on it. - Peter.
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