South Carolina Rescuers: ?Habla espanol?
Argentino Calvo, a Bolivian-born paramedic and firefighter with the Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division who speaks five languages, is the Swiss army knife of communication.
Firefighters have asked him to translate Portuguese and Italian at the scene of an accident. Other emergency workers might ask his help getting a message to someone in Spanish. He was once even asked to translate Chinese, though it's not one of his five languages.
"When you get in an accident, you want to know what's going on," said Calvo, who also has translated for the Hilton Head Regional Medical Center. "When you're not able to communicate, that's when the problem starts. ... You won't believe how much easier the job gets when you can communicate with somebody."
His translation skills might have been done as a favor to coworkers and the town. But starting next month, Calvo and a handful of other town employees will begin receiving a salary bonus as part of an initiative to improve communications with the growing Hispanic community. The town is offering an additional $1,200 a year to staff members who demonstrate the ability to read, write and speak Spanish.
Five employees took the test the town developed to measure language skills last week. Three passed, said Nancy Gasen, director of human resources. Another employee plans to take a makeup test soon.
The test, designed with the Technical College of the Lowcountry, asks employees to demonstrate comprehension of sentences that could be used in emergency situations, such as asking if there's anyone missing or if a person is hurt.
The town proposed the bonus over the summer as a way to address the language barrier, particularly in emergencies where crews don't have time to locate an interpreter.
The program drew fierce criticism from some residents, who said Spanish speakers should be encouraged to learn English and should not receive special treatment. Some accused the town of catering to illegal immigrants.
But response among town employees has been mostly positive, Gasen said. More employees wanted to take the test, but didn't feel they were ready, she said.
After the first of the year, the names of the three employees who passed will be published around Town Hall and given to the dispatcher. They'll be on call 24 hours a day. The employees also could be used to help in the Building and Fire Codes Department or elsewhere at Town Hall.
The employees will be required to keep track of how often they're called on to translate. The town plans to re-evaluate the program at the end of the year, said assistant town manager Greg DeLoach.
"If they are being under-utilized, then we will cut back" the incentive, he said. "If it's working, we'll continue to fund it."
Calvo thinks the incentive is a great way to handle some of the challenges town staff face, especially since Hilton Head draws visitors from around the world. He said he understands the opposition to the program, but believes the town is being pragmatic.
"I know some people are against it. ... I wish they would come and work with us so they would see the necessity over there," he said.
He said people who come to the area should take the time to learn English, "but unfortunately, not everyone does."
Contact Tim Donnelly at 706-8145.
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