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Language Barriers on the line

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  • 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
    lower cost.
    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
    English requirements.
    State budget problems, however, have delayed the department from
    hiring two new people to investigate complaints surrounding
    contract crews.
    "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!
    Be Safe! Lookouts-Awareness-Communications-Escape Routes-Safety Zones

    *Gathering Crust Since 1968*
    On the web at www.section2wildfire.com

  • #2
    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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