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English even for emergencies

Comment by Martin Pütter

English-speaking expats can relax: their calls – in English – to the emergency services will be answered, even if other expats say differently.

I recently read the following comment in a Facebook thread: “The Swiss fire brigade only attend if you call them in fluent German. Get a Swiss friend to record an emergency call for you – which you can then play back in the event of a fire.” I was astounded about this comment, made by a native English speaker (name withheld). Could this be true? As I had my doubts, I got in touch with Basel-Stadt’s department for justice and security, responsible for the local emergency services. Its answer immediately dispels any worries. “Emergency calls in English will be answered“, says Andreas Knuchel, the department’ media spokesperson.

In fact, “calls in English are one of the least problems in this respect”, Knuchel adds during my follow-up call to his email response. The emergency services – whether that is ambulance, police or fire brigade – are confronted with language issues “on a daily basis”, he says, “and it’s not just English.” These forces have members with knowledge in various languages working at their operations centres. And if necessary they can rely on help from partner organisations, for example Rega (the Swiss air rescue service).

Knuchel points out that it might only get a bit tricky “if the caller is speaking English when this is not his or her native language. It could mean that street names are hard to understand, or callers then cannot describe the problem adequately.” In that case it might help to call from a landline number as this can very easily be traced to an address

Information is more important than language, anyway. As most calls are today made from mobile phones, and thus cannot be traced to an address like landline numbers, the emergency services first need to know where they have to go to, what kind of emergency it is, who is affected and how seriously. It is almost like answering the five W-questions in news journalism – who, what, when, where, why. “If the emergency services get a call which says ‘police – come quick’ and then the caller hangs up, what can they do?” asks Knuchel.

Pre-recorded messages in German are not really helpful, either. Is the recorded information still correct and understandable? Is it the right information for this particular emergency? Is it easily accessible – or do the flames that are the reason why you want to call the fire brigade block access to it?

Nowadays, ironic messages and comments on social media are usually followed by smileys or something similar. This was not the case in the comment mentioned above (and I saved a screenshot of it). So, were smileys just forgotten? But even then – if it was meant as a joke, its quality is open to debate. Or is this scaremongering? Or ignorance? Whatever, expats can call the local emergency services and speak English – their call will be answered, in every sense.Fire_TBJ

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