ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — It’s a call that saved a life.  “It happened to be a medical call,” said Cynthia Greene. 

Cynthia Greene works as a 911 Communications Officer in Roanoke City. (Photo: Amanda Kenney/WFXR News)

Luckily for the caller, she answered the phone. 

“As soon as I noticed that we were having issues connecting to the translator services, I just had to jump in quick,” recalled Greene. 

Without skipping a beat the Peruvian 911 Communications Officer in Roanoke City switched to her native language.

“I  just had to make that decision and thankfully it all worked out and we were able to provide help for that caller,” said Greene. 

Being bilingual was life-saving and Community Inclusion Coordinator Katie Hedrick says the city recognizes the value in that. 

“It takes a lot of skill and a lot of brainpower to use more than one language in your everyday work,” said Hedrick, “There are a lot of people that are already doing it and getting paid the same as their counterparts.”

Roanoke City Council recently passed a bilingual pay incentive for employees like Green.

“To be able to say we recognize the work you’re doing to recognize the intellectual toll it may take on you, we want to give you a little something extra just to recognize that,” explained Hedrick. 

“I think it’s going to be a big incentive for more bilingual people to start applying for jobs in the city,” said Greene. 

That’s exactly what Hedrick says the city hopes will happen. But it’s also about the people of Roanoke and making the city a more welcoming place to live. 

“I think one of our goals long-term is that our city staff would kind of represent the diversity that we see within our city. It doesn’t right now and that is something that we’re definitely working on and taking steps for,” said Hedrick. “But I think you should be able to walk into a city building and it looks like your neighborhood. It looks like the people that you go to school with, or worship with, or whatever the case may be.”

Greene knows firsthand how vital it is to have someone working in the city represent a minority community and speak their language. “It helps everybody. it helps the city, it helps the citizens so I really think that it’s a win-win,” she said, “just to be able to do that, to help the Hispanic community is really rewarding.”

To be eligible for the bilingual pay incentive, Hedrick says the Roanoke city employee must fill out a certification request form that explains the circumstances and frequency of their use of the language on the job and it must have a signature from the employee’s supervisor or department director.  

Once that form is received, the employee takes a proficiency test provided and rated by an outside vendor. The majority of employees have tested for both oral and written proficiency, but they have the option to test only for oral proficiency, as well.  The employee must receive at least an “Advanced” rating from the testing vendor, then the paperwork is processed and sent to HR for the incentive pay.

In terms of eligibility, the employee must use the non-English language on a regular, ongoing basis (The city set a baseline of at least 10-15% of working hours). 

The position could also meet the following criteria: bilingual skills are necessary for service to the community and essential to successful performance of the functions of the department, bilingual skills are an essential element of the job duties, or the position is in a setting where there is a demonstrated public need.

Hedrick says not all employees or languages are eligible for the pay incentive. She says the city used a ton of data to determine the most frequently used non-English languages in the City.

The following are eligible for proficiency screening: American Sign Language, Arabic, Dari, Farsi, French, Haitian Creole, Nepali, Spanish, Swahili, and Vietnamese.

CLICK HERE for more information on Roanoke City’s interpretation and translation services.