Sunnyside councilwoman introduces legislation to improve emergency communications for residents with limited English proficiency

Councilwoman Julie Won, the first immigrant woman to represent District 26, introduced legislation to make emergency notification more accessible to residents with limited English proficiency. (Courtesy of Won’s office)

In an effort to improve citywide disaster communications, Councilwoman Julie Won introduced two pieces of legislation that would require the city to provide emergency information in many languages and create an infrastructure for agencies to access community-integrated translation services.

Intro 137 would require the city to translate and disseminate any information from emergency declarations from the state and federal government and provide emergency notifications where applicable in designated citywide languages. Meanwhile, Intro 136 would see public-facing city agencies create comprehensive procurement lists on community integrated translation services to provide effective services in languages outside of English.

“In our city, over 200 languages and dialects are spoken and 1.8 million New Yorkers have limited proficiency in English,” Won said. “This reality must be reflected in how our city government operates and services the people of our city. Emergencies require clear, quick and effective communication, and it must be done in the languages of our city or we are purposely excluding almost 25% of New Yorkers who are limited in their English proficiency. As a first-generation immigrant and with English as my second language, I am honored to advocate on behalf of all immigrants to get these bills passed to make language access a pillar of New York City.”

Won explained that the lack of translation services was made very clear during the last two years with the COVID-19 pandemic and the flooding from Hurricane Ida last September, which took the lives of some of her constituents in her District 26 including three members of a family, including a 2-year-old child who died in a basement apartment on 64th Street in Woodside. Many of the flooding victims across the borough had limited English proficiency and may not have had access to information about storm safety due to the language barrier.

FDNY firefighters and NYPD officers arrive at the Woodside residence located at 44-60 64th St. where a family of three was found dead in their basement apartment. (Photo by Carlotta Mohamed)

Last month, Attorney General Letitia James called on the National Weather Service and U.S. Commerce Department to expand language accessibility for severe weather alerts. Currently, warnings from the NWS, which are issued in advance of a severe weather event, are not accessible in any language except for English and Spanish.

“Languages should never be a barrier to getting critical and lifesaving information,” James said. “New York is home to people from all around the world, and it is our responsibility to protect and provide for all of our communities regardless of their primary language. To ensure the safety of New Yorkers, I urged the federal government to expand language accessibility for severe weather warnings, and I am grateful to Council member Won for taking action at the city level to provide multilingual emergency notices, expand language accessibility and protect all our communities.”