Phoenix Fire Spanish Immersion Program

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Hiring and training Spanish-speaking employees to better serve the Latino community is a national trend. The Phoenix Fire Department is one of the first in the nation to offer in-house Spanish training to on-duty firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians. Captain Larry Contreras, who serves as the Phoenix Fire Community education specialist and language immersion coordinator, joins HORIZONTE to talk about the program.

Feliciano Vera:
Good evening. I'm Feliciano Vera in tonight for José Cárdenas. Governor Napolitano details her plan for issues facing Arizona 's future in the 2007 State of the State address. We'll discuss the speech with two political experts. And learn about a program training Phoenix firefighters to speak Spanish. All this up next on Horizonte.

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Feliciano Vera:
Governor Janet Napolitano launched her second term by outlining things she plans to address this year in her state of the state speech. She talked about topics such as education, growth, and border security. We'll talk about her speech in just a moment, but first let's hear what she outlined and what she calls the "one Arizona plan".

Gov. Janet Napolitano:
I believe Arizona has been and needs to be a state of innovation where we don't do the usual or the ordinary. A state where we recognize our problems and find new ways to fix them. So today I want to focus on where we go from here, where we will take Arizona in the 21st century. There are three components to this one Arizona plan. The keys to making our state stronger than it has ever been. The first key is education, to guarantee that every young person who graduates from Arizona schools is truly prepared for a world of competition and innovation.

[Applause]

Gov. Janet Napolitano:
The second is foundation. And by "foundation," I mean more than bricks and mortar. Foundation includes the entire physical infrastructure of our state. Our transportation and water systems, the way we handle the quality of our air and our lands. It also includes the basic requirements our families depend upon. Housing, health care, and the quality of the places we live. The third key is innovation. Our success will depend upon our ability to innovate and to come up with new solutions to old-age problems; solutions that will empower Arizona to propel itself forward. We need to cultivate and stimulate new technologies, new markets, and new approaches to the way we will grow and change.

Feliciano Vera:
Joining us now to talk about the implications of the address are Republican Political Consultant Jaime Molera. Also here is Political Advisor and Former Campaign Director for the Arizona Democratic Party, Michael Frias. Michael, Jaime, welcome. Education, foundation, innovation. Three words that everybody at 1700 West Washington walked out of that speech on Monday hearing. What was your reaction? Jaime?

Jaime Molera:
Well, I think once again the governor has a very, very strong mandate. She got over 60% of the vote. The legislature narrowed quite a bit where you're going to have the democrats have a much stronger voice. She has a very strong agenda. She's pushing hard on her education initiatives. She continues to push hard on her education initiatives. She has big transportation plan that she needs to put through. But one of the things what struck me is that she understands she still is going to have battles in the legislature, so she did something what I would call Clintonesque. So she kind of ignored the legislature and focused on doing executive orders, showing that regardless of the legislature and regardless of the battles that she's going to have this year, she's going to continue to show that she's gubernatorial by going ahead and signing executive orders and showing that she's going to get things done regardless of what the republicans are going to try to do to slow her down.

Feliciano Vera:
Michael, the governor is entering her second term. What does she do this term to differentiate herself from the prior term and from prior governors? The republican editorialized yesterday that the speech was a great speech but it's the same agenda that previous administrations have faced. How does she differentiate herself this year?

Michael Frias:
Well I think the interesting thing to do is to take a look at -- to fully appreciate that State of the State address, you've got to look back at the first State of the State address that she took- that she made. And she was taking over the reins of a state that had huge deficits, had a budget process that didn't prioritize children or education or economic development. And I think, over the last four years, she worked hard and tirelessly at accomplishing that goal, and I think, you know, the by-product of that was, as Jaime mentioned, a resounding election victory on election night. So now coming back, I think we have the benefit of a governor who's succeeded in the first term and who can now drill down and establish long-term fundamental change in Arizona policy that ensures, like she says, the quality of life that Arizonans expect.

Feliciano Vera:
Jaime, you're former superintendent of public instruction, education. How does her plan play out relative to her last term and the last legislature?

Jaime Molera:
Well, the last legislature, let's face it; the main thing that she did was battle against cuts, battle against anything that would be harmful to K-12 education. I'm not sure if she had a plan that said, how are we going to advance K-12? I think now she's saying in her second term, we really need to move forward. And one of the ways we move forward is let's address the big thing that's plaguing us. One is the drop-out rate. And she's saying there that we've got to raise the graduation rate to 18, and let's face the fact that kids can't be on the street at 16. The second thing is that, if they do stay in school, then they have to have the tools to be prepared, and that's getting the math and science requirements. Those are the kinds of things, I think, that can be a very strong legacy, but the issue that I think she's going to face is how do you pay for that? Because it's easy to talk about these kinds of things, but now you're going to talk about how much teachers we have that actually can teach math. She wants to raise the requirements from three to four years- or, excuse me, from two to four years, and I think there's a lot of schools in Arizona that are having a hard time finding algebra teachers, particularly in rural areas. She wants to raise the science requirements to three years. Those are the kinds of things that, when you combine it with the budget processes where we know we're seeing growth but not as robust as we have in the last few years. That's where the devil's in the details.

Feliciano Vera:
Michael, the governor, within the context of education, talked about access to health care, particularly kids' care program. Last week or actually what is it-- over the weekend, Governor Schwarzenegger in California announces his universal health care initiative.

Michael Frias:
Right.

Feliciano Vera:
Past dialogues about kids' care have been focused on the fact that much of -- many of the recipients of the kids' care and participants in the kids' care program are immigrants. How does this play out with this legislature and given the political context of this past election?

Michael Frias:
Sure. I mean, I think the governor is right to address the issue of 150,000 children not having -- being fully covered by health care, and I don't think it's universal health care for all. I think she's being smart about addressing those people -- you know -- 19 and under and making sure that they have health insurance. And -- you know -- we continue to see that those kids who are covered and health care needs are met perform better in schools. I mean I think the genius of the governor is that she sees that everything is all connected. Education is connected to health care, which is connected to economic development. And so I think, you know, if the republicans want to political grandstand about this is a program for immigrants or the Latino community in particular, I think they're losing out, and I think they're playing politics rather than addressing a good policy proposal.

Feliciano Vera:
Jaime, last year, the legislature sent a series of bills across the governor's desk, that were intended to force her into a bad position with respect to immigration. Do you expect the legislature to attempt that same tactic this year? And, if so, how is it going to play out?

Jaime Molera:
They will. There's no doubt that they will. I mean, the republican leadership is going to try and differentiate themselves with what the governor is proposing. But it's not an election year, so you're not going to have the same kind of, I think, gamesmanship that we saw this past year. But certainly they will do that. The interesting thing that I think the governor is going to have to face is that she has a lot more democrats in the legislature now that are starting to feel their oats. I mean, let's face it. She's been very, very successful about showing herself as a centrist, that she appeals to republicans and of course she appeals to democrats. But there are many democrats in the legislature that feel that she needs to be much more of an advocate for the Democratic Party agenda, and that's where I think she's going to have some issues. They don't want to just be told about what it is she's doing and how she's negotiating with republicans. They want to be in on it. They want to be in on the budget negotiations, they want to be in on some of the major policy decisions like immigration that we're going to see in the next couple of months. So that's going to be a tightrope that she's going to have to walk. She needs to position herself where she can battle republicans, but at the same time she can't ignore the fact that she has a very strong and a very vocal caucus and the democrats are going to want her to move more to the left.

Feliciano Vera:
Michael, as Jaime indicated, the governor, in her speech, didn't pay a lot of attention to immigration or border issues. Is that a function of the fact that this is an election year or is that a function of priorities?

Michael Frias:
No. I think what it was, what you saw is a governor delivering a State of the State address that was more about the future, about building upon the success of the first term and going forward with the second term that moves Arizona beyond these next four years. But -- you know -- into 2010 and 2020. And I think, by her putting it in at the end, she reminded all the Arizona voters and Arizonans that I've got my eye on the ball, I have an ambitious agenda for the second term, but I know you continue to be concerned about immigration. I will continue to pound the federal government to come up with a plan. And hopefully with a new democratic congress, we'll begin to see more funding and more programs that holistically address immigration.

Feliciano Vera:
Jaime, you talked about funding within the context of education. The plan that the governor came up with in her State of the State address is a very ambitious one. Obviously there's a price tag to it. She talks about tax cuts on a broader perspective rather than on a focused perspective. How is that going to sell with the legislature during the upcoming session?

Jaime Molera:
Well, actually, in the State of the State, she really didn't talk about tax cuts. And again, not being an election year, I think she realized she didn't have to focus on it as much. But the legislature will be expecting some kind of a tax package. Most of the discussions centered around a property tax cut and a lot of the business communities looking for business property tax cuts in particular. So that's one of the things that- again going back to this notion about how you deal with her democrat base- when the final budget deal is cut in order to get the republican votes, to get the 31 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate, there probably will need to be some kind of a compromise. There's a lot of even democrat leadership that are saying we can't afford tax cuts and shouldn't do any whatsoever. So that's the kind of balance that she's going to have to face.

Feliciano Vera:
Michael, do we have too many tax credits, tax breaks on the books? I mean, certainly there are those that would argue that we do need focused tax breaks and incentives for economic development purposes.

Michael Frias:
Sure. I don't think we have too many. I think, what we have, though, is we have economic forecasts that suggest that we're going to have less revenue than before, and I think the governor has been consistent that you pay as you go. You're going to do tax cuts, let's explain to Arizona voters that a tax cut here may cost a program here and there and may cost a child being insured or an education that falls a little bit short. Let's weigh it all together, tax cuts and new programs.

Jaime Molera:
Just a point. And that's where the republicans, I think, in leadership have an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the governor's agenda. If they can coalesce around the notion of what kind of tax packages they want and being able to force that, and to get the 31 republicans in the House, 60 in the Senate to say, look, you might have a budget that has all the priorities that you outlined, but you are going to have a significant tax cut package that we believe is going to be good for the long-term growth of this state, which is, I think that's their one area that they're going to coalesce around.

Feliciano Vera:
Now, on finances, the governor talked about transportation financing and about shifting the timetable for our transportation bond from 20 years to 30 years. Leadership has had problems with what they've called accounting tricks in the past. How are they going to react to that proposal?

Jaime Molera:
Well, you have the leadership that resides in some urban growth areas that needs transportation dollars.

[Laughter]

Jaime Molera:
So you can spread it out from 20 years to 30 years, which generates nearly $400 million, and you have a lot of the west valley constituents and the east valley constituents and Tucson constituents that are saying, we need our roads widened. We need more freeways. We need to get from here to there without going through a parking lot every single day. I think it's going to be tough for them to balk at that particular proposal.

Feliciano Vera:
Gentlemen, we're out of time. Thank you so much.

Michael Frias:
Thank you.

Jaime Molera:
Thank you.

Feliciano Vera:
There is a national trend by police and fire departments to hire and train employees to speak Spanish in order to better serve the Latino community. The Phoenix Fire Department is one of the first in the nation to offer in-house Spanish training to emergency medical technicians and firefighters. As Nadine Arroyo tells us, it's a program firefighters say is a valuable asset to the job.

Capt. Frank Contreras:
We have different sounds in English on this, but in Spanish it's always one sound. That sound is aaa. So everyone:
Aaa.

Nadine Arroyo:
This is not your ordinary Spanish class. This is the Phoenix Fire department Spanish Immersion program, designed to prepare firefighters and its paramedics to better serve the people of Phoenix .

Unknown:
The more difficult way to do something is to give you the Spanish and then you give me the English. So let's start with a guy--

Nadine Arroyo:
The fire department has been certifying their firefighters and paramedics in Spanish for more than four years. The program was designed to teach these emergency responders basic Spanish after realizing the need to better communicate with constituents during in an emergency.

Capt. Frank Contreras:
We're getting- or have been getting bigger influx of Latinos and Latinas, and they have problems, too. They call emergency 911. We respond to them. And there's a communication need that we're addressing.

Nadine Arroyo:
Fire department staff registers for the class voluntarily. The program is a three- to four-month intense course, and staff attend class during their regular working hours. Most of the instructors of the class are former students themselves. All of those who attend the class say the benefits are endless.

Capt. Tom Taylor:
I feel like I'm able- I'd be able to provide a better service, really. I mean, I still have the same skills whether I speak English or Spanish, but I can get more to the point of what's really going on with someone, and that makes- you know- feel like you're really accomplishing your job versus -- you know -- kind of "I can't communicate with the patient." Well then, you're not really sure if you're helping them or not. But this way, as I'm expanding my vocabulary and my ability to communicate with them, it makes you feel better about being able to really treat them, really help them out.

Nadine Arroyo:
In just two classes, these firefighters can communicate basic important questions such as who's the patient or--

Capt. Tom Taylor:
¿Cuál es la problema?

Capt. Frank Contreras:
Many times there will be non-Spanish speaking crews that will respond to some of these calls, and sometimes they may send a person to the hospital when they really don't need to go to the hospital. And when they're learning Spanish because they want to, to me, I tip my hat off to them.

Nadine Arroyo:
To assure the students have successfully immerged into the Spanish language, they are given a final oral exam administered in Spanish. Once they've passed and are certified as Spanish-speaking staff, they are rewarded with a minimum monthly bonus.

Feliciano Vera:
With us tonight to talk about the Spanish Immersion program is Captain Larry Contreras, community education specialist and Spanish-language Immersion coordinator for the Phoenix Fire Department. Larry, welcome.

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Feliciano, thank you for having me.

Feliciano Vera:
How old is this program? This is something that's been around for over a decade now. Is that right?

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Well, quite honestly, formally, it's about five years old, but we've been dealing with this problem for about 25 years. Now it's actually a 10-year plan to get half of our members certified at this basic level. We're at five years now.

Feliciano Vera:
So you've got roughly 25% of your members that are out in the field right now that are --

Capt. Larry Contreras:
We are right at 218, and we want to get to 750.

Feliciano Vera:
You mentioned that this is a problem that the department has noticed for the last 25 some odd years. What prompted specifically the creation of the program?

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Well, we've always had the idea that, if we could ever have a station that was pretty much dedicated to this effort, that we would. And what actually occurred was that the Levine Fire Department presented us with an opportunity to absorb their firefighters and then create the program without displacing any firefighters. So it was an opportunity -- it was something that was born out of an idea from Chief Al Brunacini and our Labor President Billy Schultz.

Feliciano Vera:
Speaking of former fire chief, Al Brunacini?

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Yeah.

Feliciano Vera:
Now, what's been the reaction from the community and from department members in general?

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Well the department members love it. We actually have -- we probably have 24 spots every four months available, and when we first began the program, we had 200 letters of interest. And people have all kinds of different reasons why they want to come, mostly just to improve their ability to deliver our services. And community-wise, it's been tremendous. We've been able to -- one of the efforts that we try to do in this instruction is involve the students in the community a lot, and so whatever's going on, if it's a health fair or a special event -- this Sunday, we're going to be down at the marathon, and we're going to involve our folks just in that activity. And so we try to be visible. We try to get that experience connected with the effort of learning. And that's one of the secrets that I think we've been able to stumble into.

Feliciano Vera:
Based on your experience in the field, what's the difference between a member and a crew that is bilingual and linguistically competent and a crew whose members may not necessarily have that linguistic capacity?

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Well, I'm happy to say that our members in general are very competent. They're highly skilled and they're highly trained. And so you can imagine that when suddenly they run into the obstacle of not being able to communicate, it's a debilitating feeling, and it actually is debilitating to the person that's receiving the services, especially when they're critical. And there's lots of different life-saving maneuvers that require that communication, that are information dependent. And so it creates that helpless feeling that everybody can have when they call 911. So we're hopefully -- we know for a fact that we are changing that feeling.

Feliciano Vera:
Nationally, what is the trend like with respect to developing similar programs to serve language minority communities? Have you had any conversations with your peers across the country?

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Yeah. Absolutely. I get calls all the time from people that are interested in the program that we've developed. The idea of having people that speak Spanish, like you mentioned at the opening of the show, is definitely there. Organizations are weighting their hiring practices, they're stimulating people to go and get that education. What we've attempted to do is kind of emphasize that fact and also improve on that by instructing our own folks. We just looked across our organization and said, is there anybody that has the ability to do this? and we found lots of folks. So we've kind of convinced that other organization that that is possible. I just talked recently with a fellow from Clark County , and they're interested in looking at our model and employing it there. We did do the same thing in a small tri-city area around Washington , D.C. They actually took our program. We assisted them. So this circumstance is nationwide. It's not just what you imagine, border cities. We're seeing it across the country. So the need is definitely there.

Feliciano Vera:
Have you or the department received any negative feedback or negative criticism at the program? Last year obviously was a border and immigration issues were hot button issues in the political campaign. You're in the life-or-death business.

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Right.

Feliciano Vera:
What kind of criticism have you guys received?

Capt. Larry Contreras:
We definitely hear that initially from the first snapshot response of some folks. They have the polarized issues that people tend to respond to. Once we explain to them what we're doing, it's an easily digestible rationale. It's life safety. We don't have the opportunity to make any judgments when time is of the essence. And so that tends to flatten out in that sense. On the other hand, those issues are there. We actually have had those issues with students coming in. They're struggling with this idea. But, and, once again, once they have those positive experiences, they actually learn -- they actually meet some folks, and they're able to communicate. Communication is critical not just in the life-saving efforts but also just understanding that I'm ok, you're ok, if you want to think of it that way. When they have a communication in Spanish, it's a special moment. It really is. And it's just a pleasure to be part of that.

Feliciano Vera:
Now, obviously Spanish is probably the second most commonly spoken language in the valley. Is there any interest in expanding the program to serve any other communities?

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Any other communities or languages?

Feliciano Vera:
Any other languages.

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Any other languages? In terms of the certification process -- and we certify through the language coordinator for the City of Phoenix . And she tells me that there's folks that are certified in Vietnamese and a couple in German, a couple in French. Overwhelmingly, however, the language is Spanish. Now -- and I've done lots of research on this, just secondary to getting involved in this program, and I believe it's Ontario or -- I'm not sure exactly. Somewhere in Canada where it's exactly the opposite where French is the language that they compensate for. And one of the fire departments, it's actually a requirement. You have to be able to speak French. They have the same issue. It's a base fundamental concern being able to deliver life-saving services.

Feliciano Vera:
Final question. How many members have gone through the program, and what does the future look like for the Spanish immersion program that the fire department's running?

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Well, we've had -- I bet we've probably had about 250 folks go through. We have 218 actually certified. There is talk of another -- we're going to expand to another station. Right now we have two fire stations that are committed to teaching Spanish. And I also want to add that one of the other facets of this program is that we are never out of service. We're always ready to go on the next emergency call. So we never -- I saw that they had a classroom in the opening, but those folks are ready to go on the next call.

Feliciano Vera:
Captain Contreras, thank you so much.

Capt. Larry Contreras:
Okay. Thank you very much.

Feliciano Vera:
That's our show for tonight. Thank you for joining us. I'm Feliciano Vera, in tonight for José Cárdenas. For all of us here at Horizonte, good night.

Michael Frias: Political Advisor and Former Campaign Director for the Arizona Democratic Party;

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