FEMA Working to Overcome Communication Barriers to Disaster Assistance

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Release date: 
November 16, 2011
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AUSTIN, Texas -- One of the primary missions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of Texas wildfires is to provide disaster assistance as quickly as possible to the survivors who need it. FEMA understands the power of effective communication, and has taken steps to eliminate any barriers that may delay getting assistance to Texas’ diverse communities.

FEMA’s bilingual and multilingual Community Relations specialists who began canvassing wildfire-affected neighborhoods within hours of the disaster declaration not only learned that English, Spanish and American Sign Language were the main languages used by survivors, they were able to answer questions in each survivor’s language. In addition, they distributed informational fliers in English and Spanish to homeowners, businesses, and community- and faith-based organizations.

FEMA also has translated its English-language brochure “Help After a Disaster” into several languages and alternative formats, including large print and Braille. These versions, which have been available at Disaster Recovery Centers in wildfire-affected areas, explain FEMA’s Individual and Households Program and provide guidance on applying for assistance.

Spanish-speaking public information officers from FEMA have given dozens of interviews to Spanish-language media, appeared on radio talk shows and spoken with community groups across the affected areas, all in an attempt to get the word to survivors whose primary language is Spanish. Additionally, FEMA news releases on disaster recovery are translated and then sent to Spanish-language media. Wildfire recovery updates are available in English and Spanish on the agency’s website, which also is designed for use by people with disabilities.  

"One of our main goals during a disaster recovery effort is to get the message out about the many ways FEMA can help eligible survivors,” said Federal Coordinating Officer Kevin L. Hannes. “That means bridging all possible communication barriers.”

Multilingual operators are available to help non-English-speaking wildfire survivors register for assistance and get their questions answered. After dialing 1-800-621- 3362 or TTY 1-800-462-7585 callers may choose to speak in English, Spanish or, by choosing Option 3 on the call, any of the 183 other available languages and dialects. Those who use 711-Relay or Video Relay Services (VRS) can call 1-800-621-3362.

By recognizing potential language or communication barriers FEMA can identify interpreter and translator needs. That’s when FEMA specialists like Patricia “Allie” West can help. West, who speaks English, Spanish and American Sign Language, is one of several multilingual FEMA specialists and volunteers assisting survivors at the Bastrop recovery center.

Additionally, using VRS equipment donated by the private, nonprofit organization Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), FEMA sign language interpreters like West can communicate with deaf survivors who are off site – or they can leave them video messages.  Using VRS, survivors who are deaf or hard of hearing can visit a DRC and meet with a recovery specialist who does not sign.  Then, using a computer with a video camera device, they can communicate with one another via a qualified sign language interpreter located at the CSD customer service center.  The ASL interpreter relays the conversation back and forth between the deaf or hard of hearing survivor and the recovery specialist.  The live, interactive service is available on demand at the recovery center.

“FEMA is doing all we can to reach every wildfire survivor,” said Hannes. Making the best use of our own multilingual employees, ...

Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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