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Language barrier caused health scare

October 14, 2006|by ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN - A health scare in downtown Hagerstown on Wednesday grew out of a language barrier.

A Hagerstown Police officer thought that African refugees living in a West Franklin Street apartment building were sick. Fearing a dangerous illness, officials quarantined the building and set up decontamination tents.

The refugees didn't speak English and couldn't tell the officer that they were OK.

Reviewing the incident on Thursday, Hagerstown Fire Department Chief Gary Hawbaker said emergency personnel are not told where refugees are living in the city or whether they can communicate with first responders.

Richard Cline, director of the Virginia Council of Churches refugee resettlement program, said he believes telling officials where refugees are living and what languages they speak would be an invasion of privacy.

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However, he said he would like to focus on establishing a communications system with local police and emergency personnel to avoid future confusion.

The families living on West Franklin Street were from the African nations of Burundi and Somalia. The Virginia Council of Churches placed the refugees in Hagerstown.

Cline said he and officials involved in the response were scheduled to meet in Hagerstown on Friday to talk about how the miscommunication might have been avoided.

He could not be reached Friday afternoon to find out the result of that meeting.

"If anything, this just points out that we need to have better communication with other providers in Hagerstown," he said.

In-service training might soon be offered locally for personnel to explain which ethnic groups are represented here. Cline said he would like to set up a clear line of communication for future incidents.

Emergency workers would have a phone number they could call to find out what language the refugees speak, their medical history and other important information, he said.

"At least there can be a quicker response time in finding out what's going on," Cline said.

- Staff writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story

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