Translation device bridges language gap for emergency responders

ELSA: Enabling Language Service Anywhere
The translation device ELSA: Enabling Language Service Anywhere is made by Chaska-based RTT Mobile. Since it became available in December 2012, its use has rapidly expanded. Nearly 30 agencies, department and health systems in Minnesota are now using it and it has expanded to most states.
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

A screaming baby is badly burned, but the mother doesn't speak English and paramedics cannot communicate with her. But the stressful episode is diffused because of a new device that quickly helps locate a translator.

"I have a lady that speaks Arabic," a paramedic tells an Arabic translator. "We need to get some information about her baby."

After learning that the baby was burned in a cooking accident, the paramedic asks the translator to reassure the mother.

"Just let her know that I have a doctor that's with us right now," the translator said. "The gentleman in the gray shirt is a doctor and we're going to be transporting her and the baby to Children's Hospital. Let her know that."

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The conversation in New Orleans, which could have occurred anywhere in the United States, was made possible by a device called ELSA: Enabling Language Service Anywhere.

Made by Chaska-based RTT Mobile, the device enables a three-way phone call. It uses a cell phone signal and in about one minute connects users with an interpreter through Language Line Solutions, a translation company based in Monterey, Calif.

The service, available only in the United States, provides translators for 180 languages.

"It was built to be rugged and to be used in those environments that law enforcement and first responders would be in... those are elements where the need for the interpretation to be correct and immediate were so critical."

Roughly the size of an index card, with three buttons, built in microphones and a speaker, the device is simple to operate. It can connect callers with a translator in about 30 seconds.

If a user hits the same button twice, an operator will ask what language is needed. In situations where the language is not clear, the operator can help determine that.

RTT Mobile began selling the translation tool in December. Since then, officials in nearly every state have started using it.

"The majority, right now, of our devices are in the hands of law enforcement, first responders, and hospitals," said Linda Stanto, vice president of marketing and implementation for RTT Mobile.

According to the company, calls made from the device more than doubled from February to March. RTT Mobile officials say they're on track to make a sales goal of $7 million this year.

Besides police and paramedics, Stanton said the company is seeing increased interest from county attorneys, school districts and the military.

"It was built to be rugged and to be used in those environments that law enforcement and first responders would be in," she said. "And of course, those are elements where the need for the interpretation to be correct and immediate were so critical."

Although the ELSA device is remarkably low tech, it provides a service that is in demand: live, instant, accurate translation that law enforcement and others say is critical in high-stress situations.

Last year, Microsoft unveiled a vocal translation technology. But company officials said it is still in the early stages and makes errors. That's something that first responders want to avoid.

In St. Cloud, both the Stearns County Attorney's Office and the St. Cloud Police Department have purchased several of the ELSA devices. They're among the nearly 30 companies and agencies using the device in Minnesota.

Sgt. Jason Burke, a training officer for the St. Cloud department, said the service is a big help to the department, which has relied on bilingual officers and other translation services that require scheduling an appointment.

"The difference is the immediacy of getting access to an interpreter," he said.

Burke said the new device fills that need, as was shown recently, when it helped allow officers to deliver a baby and during a domestic violence call.

"As years go on, whatever community that you're in, you can see a lot more non-English speaking people moving into the community," Burke said. "It has been difficult in the past to be able to communicate with some people when you have contact with them through law enforcement."

Burke said the main drawback is cost. The department has just two for its entire patrol unit. At $400 apiece, and up to $2 per minute to operate, the device is can be expensive to use, especially during a complicated police call.

Agencies and departments using the ELSA translation device in Minnesota

• Stearns County Attorney's Office
• Allina Hospitals and Clinics
• South Metro Fire Department
• St. Cloud Police Department
• LRC Language Consulting
• Blue Earth County Sheriff
• Nicollet County Sheriff's Office
• Stearns County Sheriff's Office
• Landmark Personnel, Inc.
• Nobles County Attorney's Office
• Nobles County Community Services
• Windom Area Hospital
• Rock Nobles Community Corrections
• Nobles County Sheriff's Jail Office
• Nobles County Sheriff's Office
• Fairmont Police Department
• Mountain Lake Police
• Plymouth Police Department
• Martin County Sheriff's Office
• Cottonwood County Sheriff's Office
• Windom Ambulance Service
• Jackson County Jail
• Astrup Drug, Inc.
• Faribault County Sheriff's Office
• Key Medical Supply, Inc.
• 6W Community Corrections
• Three Rivers Park District
• Metro Transit Police