Today from Hiiraan Online:  _
Local station wants to be source for limited English speaking communities before and after a crisis

Monday July 8, 2019

A St. Paul police officer mingles with city residents during Safe Summer Nights in June 2019. Kaying Thao, center, is a community engagement specialist with the St. Paul Police Department to the Hmong community. She is the liaison to TPT’s initiative, helping to get public safety messages from the police department to the limited English speakers in the Hmong community. (Courtesy of TPT)

The blaring tone of the Emergency Broadcast System on TV was always taken seriously in Said Farah’s home in Seattle where his Somali-born parents spoke very little English.

“If there’s something going on, you don’t know if it’s something very minor or if it’s something that is an actual life-threatening emergency. You kind of end up living in this state of constant fear,” he said. “You feel powerless in a lot of ways.”

Lillian McDonald, managing director at Twin Cities Public Television in St. Paul, hopes to allay fears of limited English speakers with a TV channel that’s on 24/7 posting emergency information in English, Spanish, Hmong and Somali. Eventually, the channel will cover more, such as educational topics from police departments on a variety of public health and safety topics.

Last December, McDonald, through TPT, secured a $37,464 grant from the F. R. Bigelow Foundation to work specifically with the St. Paul Police Department on creating some of these messages. She hopes to eventually share these public service announcements with the thirty other counties in the station’s broadcast footprint that reaches about 1 million households, many in dense populations where English is a second language.


Eric Waage, director of Hennepin County Emergency Management, said this kind of channel is unique and its development is being closely watched by federal agencies that are always looking for better ways to reach these populations quickly with daily health and safety content and emergency messages.

“Most places in the U.S., if they push the proverbial big siren button, anything that’s available is going to be in English, which doesn’t serve your population well,” he said. With the channel, “we have the ability to provide these other language services immediately so they can get the message right away.”

The channel, TPT Now, which can be found at TPT Channel 2.5 and online at tpt.org/tptnow, is connected to constant real-time feeds from news services and weather. There’s also a box (or a banner, as it’s called in the media business) that changes randomly with public service announcements in the four different languages. For example, one banner read: “¿Escucha una sirena?” which means “Hear a siren?” It followed with directions to go inside and get information.

Another banner read “Hiigsiga Juun,” which is Somali for “Goal for June.” This message comes from do1thing.com, which gives newcomers one simple task to complete each month to prepare for emergencies. June’s tip was to have a backup plan when someone in the family is unable to go to work.


Waage said having the local, dedicated team of linguists that McDonald has assembled is an indispensable tool for emergency managers.

McDonald’s team has participated in two drills so far, learning loads after each one.

Looking at a photo of the linguists sitting around a table working on laptops at the drill in October with the Minnesota Department of Health on what to do in an anthrax scare, Farah had to laugh.

“This picture looks pretty calm and still, but it was straight chaos,” he said.

In the room were three linguists on each language team, two translating and a third proofreading a message sent by the emergency management team in the other room. They kept practicing to speed up their response time.


“We have to make sure that we all agree on the best way to say it because when you translate something, there are a million different ways to say the same sentence depending on who you are and what your world view is, even though you speak the same language,” Farah said.

Kaying Thao, a community engagement specialist with the St. Paul Police Department to the Hmong community, said it’s not as easy as punching it into Google Translate.

“We each interpret and translate things different,” she said. “There are so many words in the English language that we don’t have. One word in English might take us seven words to describe and explain.”


The internet provides multiple sources for information. Unfortunately, Waage said, it also provides plenty of misinformation. For an English speaker, knowing which source to trust is sometimes tricky. For a limited English speaker, it’s twice as hard.

“If you go back to the 50s in the Cold War, you had everyone’s attention because they shut off every single radio station in the event of a civil defense emergency,” he said. “You had no choice but to

listen to two radio stations no matter where you were. The ridiculous amount of stations and competition for information, it’s exploded into this mass, so the reliability factor that knowing what you’re listening to is the official word is really challenged. We have a difficult time competing with the junk out there.”

As an example, he said he’ll have people calling in worried about 2-year-old tornado warning posts that pop up in their feeds.


Having the station be available 24/7 is huge, too, Waage said, telling of the 2002 Minot train derailment in North Dakota.

Thirty cars of a Canadian Pacific train derailed about four miles west of a town in Ward County. Five tanker cars carrying anhydrous ammonia ruptured, releasing a cloud of caustic, poisonous gas over the city. It was about 2 in the morning. There were no people to contact at the TV stations there and no way to get the message quickly to the masses, whatever language they spoke.

So, the authorities turned on the tornado sirens. People understood those. They woke up and went down into the basement. Unfortunately, anhydrous ammonia is heavier than air and goes to the lowest areas. People turned on their televisions but found only re-runs.

The accident killed one person, caused serious injuries to 11 and minor injuries to 322 others.

A dedicated channel could have meant a different outcome in that case, Waage said.


McDonald told about when she was a public information officer in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Plenty of warnings were going out in English, but the Vietnamese community did not get the message.

“They were actually reaching back to Minnesota for content,” she said.

TPT Now wants to be that accurate source for emergency information that people of all languages can turn to.

As McDonald and her team developed the channel, they’ve come to realize that trust is key to getting people to tune in. Trust is something that has to be built in the calm before the storm, she said. And once the trust is there, the communities will listen to advice about how to be better prepared when disaster strikes.


With this in mind, McDonald is currently recruiting foundations, nonprofits and businesses to be part of a Community Resiliency Advisory Council that will help educate these communities so they bounce back faster after a tragedy.

Waage saw this need firsthand after a tornado ripped through Minneapolis in 2011, destroying roofs with hail and high winds. Many of those affected spoke limited English.

“You have a community there, that to begin with, was less resilient,” he said. “You had a general lack of insurance. You have people who were not actually the homeowner. These kinds of things compound your disaster. They make the response more difficult and they make recovery far more difficult. You notice there were blue tarps on roofs for a long, long time.”

That’s also where the partnership with the St. Paul Police Department comes in.
Through 2019, the department will be able to use TPT’s resources to, among other things, record videos on gun safety, community engagement, car theft and police recruitment. TPT will broadcast these videos on its other stations and pass them on to Hmong, Somali and Latino media partners.

To McDonald’s critics who worry about losing American identity by speaking to the diverse populations in languages other than English, she says this: “I know the expectation, too, is when people are in this country, they should just learn English. I think people are trying to learn English. But you can’t learn English on the fly in a crisis.”


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