Broad Concern with County’s Failure to Provide Language Access during Time of Disaster


SAN DIEGO – During this severe fire disaster, it is imperative that all San Diego county residents are being provided with the most up to date information concerning the fires sweeping across our county.  Organizations and community leaders from San Diego’s Latino and Asian Pacific Islander communities hearing from scores of victims who could not access the most recent news about the fires, pleaded with county officials beginning yesterday to provide important fire-related information in multiple languages so that they can take care of their families and ensure everyone’s safety.

[Lea este artículo aquí en español.]

“Many of our clients are monolingual Chinese speakers, so when there is an emergency, communication in our own language is very important,” said Sally Wong Avery, president of the Chinese Service Center. “We trust that our government officials will have all the necessary languages covered so that no one is left behind.”

This morning, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties informed the county Board of Supervisors of their legal obligation to translate pertinent emergency information and provided recommendations to meet those obligations, including by having a Spanish translator at all press conferences. Unfortunately, the county again conducted its afternoon briefing and news conference in only English and American Sign Language, continuing to leave large portions of the county’s residents in the dark about critical safety and evacuation information.

“It is imperative that the County ensure language access to vital information and services during disasters,” said Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “We know how hard our first responders are working to save lives. No one should be left in harm’s way because they didn’t understand the extent of the danger.”

The ACLU letter requested that the County:

  1. Hold all press conferences and briefings regarding the wildfire in both English & Spanish;
  2. Ensure that all written press releases and advisories regarding the wildfires are issued in Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog/Filipino, and Chinese, as the County already is required to do for voting materials; and
  3. Ensure that 211 operators who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog/Filipino, and Chinese are available to answer calls in those languages.

“Our local elected officials have an obligation to provide life saving information quickly, efficiently and in a language that all San Diego County residents can understand,” said Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition. “It is unacceptable for  public officials to allow language to become a barrier that impedes the flow of life-saving information.”

Both state and federal law require San Diego County to provide its residents with natural disaster information in a language they can understand.  California law says, “it is discriminatory practice” for the county to “to fail to take appropriate steps to ensure that alternative communication services are available to ultimate beneficiaries.”

There are a significant number of San Diegans that are in need of translated, urgent information:

  • 35% of County residents age 5 and above speak a language other than English.
  • 24% of County residents age 5 and above speak Spanish.
  • 15% of County residents age 5 and above have limited English proficiency.
  • 11% of County residents age 5 and above speak Spanish & have limited English proficiency.
  • Approximately 15% of North County residents age 5 and above speak Spanish & have limited English proficiency.

The ACLU letter cited federal and state laws requiring language access to public services. Read the entire letter (in English) here. Loy attached a copy of “A Local Official’s Guide to Language Access Laws.”