On January 1, 2024, California Government Code section 7299.7 went into effect, requiring “local agencies” to provide “emergency related information” in languages other than English.  To date, there is little guidance as to what the law legally requires, most likely because the actual implementation date is January 1, 2025.  Given that we are now over halfway to January 2025, it is probably the right time to start considering the new law’s impact.  So, let’s take a look to see how to prepare.

Where to Find Government Code section 7299.7

Government Code section 7299.7 is located in the Chapter of the Government Code known as the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act.  (Gov. Code § 7290.)  As the name implies, this chapter focuses on language, specifically aiming to increase the accessibility of services, benefits, and rights for citizens and residents who speak languages other than English.  (Gov. Code § 7291.)  The chapter requires state agencies (as defined under Government Code section 11000) and local public agencies (as defined under Government Code section 54951) to employ a sufficient number of qualified bilingual persons in public contact positions to ensure information and services to the public in non-English languages.  (Gov. Code §§ 7292-7293.)  The chapter also requires the translation and distribution of materials explaining available services.  (Gov. Code §§ 7295-7295.4.) 

Notably, the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act must be implemented to the extent that local, state, or federal funds are available, and to the extent permissible under federal law and the provisions of civil service law governing state and local agencies.  (Gov. Code § 7299.)  However, there are several exceptions.  The Chapter does not apply to school districts, county boards of education, or the office of a county superintendent of schools.  (Gov. Code § 7298.)   And the Department of Human Resources may exempt state agencies from certain requirements where the state agency’s primary mission does not include responsibility for furnishing information or rendering services to the public, or if the state agency has not been required to employ bilingual staff to meet its obligations and employs fewer than 25 full-time employees in public contact positions.  (Gov. Code § 7299.5.) 

What Government Code section 7299.7 Requires

Within the context of the rest of the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act, Government Code section 7299.7 represents an expansion of law that specifically targets certain local agencies providing emergency response services to non-English speakers within their jurisdiction.  Rather than starting discussion on the first few subsections of the statute, I think it is always better to start with definitions, so I will begin by looking at subsection (e) which lists three definitions specific to this section. 

The following are defined. “Emergency” means a situation that calls for immediate action to respond to the threat of serious harm or mass casualties, including conditions of natural disaster or conditions posing extreme peril to the safety of persons and property in the territorial limits of the local agency.”  “Emergency response services” means police, fire, or emergency medical services.  And “local agency” means a city, county, city and county, or a department of a city or county.  (Gov. Code § 7299.7(e).)

The easiest definition to approach is “local agency,” which is expressly a city, county, city and county, or a department of a city or county.  This is a markedly narrower definition than the rest of the Dymally-Alatorre Bilingual Services Act uses, which is Government Code section 54951’s more expansive “county, city, whether general law or chartered, city and county, town, school district, municipal corporation, district, political subdivision, or any board, commission or agency thereof, or other local public agency” language.  Because the definition of “local agency” is expressly defined in this section, it is hard to imagine that the legislature intended anything other than what is written.  The law’s scope is further narrowed because it applies only to those local agencies that provide “emergency response services,” meaning police, fire, or emergency medical services.  (Gov. Code § 7299.7(a).)  While not a perfectly drawn line, this at least helps us understand the ballpark of which agencies and departments of agencies are affected. 

In contrast to that specificity, the definition of “emergency” is a little vague.  It clearly entails serious conditions, but what qualifies as a situation that calls for immediate action or a threat of serious harm or mass casualties?  Probably not something as gradual as climate change, maybe not something so rare or hard to predict as a lightning strike.  Maybe a beach with a history of shark attacks?  And what about extreme peril to the safety of persons and property?  Probably something like a wildfire, earthquake or tornado qualifies, but what about a string of home robberies or attempted murders?  There are no metrics on the outer bounds of what qualifies, so it is hard to say precisely, but agencies should still be able to craft policies tailored to comply with the law, especially with the assistance of legal counsel.  Agencies should be aware of these uncertainties while they proactively plan to comply with Government Code section 7299.7.

With these definitions in hand, let’s look at what the law requires if it applies to your agency.  Beginning January 1, 2025, cities and counties (or their departments) that provide police, fire, or emergency medical services need to provide information related to an emergency in English and all languages spoken jointly by 5 percent or more of the population that speaks English less than “very well.”  (Gov. Code § 7299.7(a).)  To determine which languages are required, these local agencies need to use data from the American Community Survey or “an equally reliable source,” and need to reassess the data every five years to update which languages are provided. 

The law specifically names the American Community Survey, and agencies should recognize that it “is an ongoing survey that provides vital information on a yearly basis” (which separates it from the Decennial Census that occurs every ten years) and is implemented through the United States’ Census Bureau.  Currently, the Los Angeles Regional Office handles all data collection, data dissemination, and operations for the whole of California (and six other states). A link to the American Community Survey’s homepage follows, and if you dig around, you will notice that there are a few links that may be useful, such as a link to the Census Bureau’s publicly available data (which can be filtered down to individual cities and counties), as well as pre-prepared data tables, data tools, and guidance on how to navigate data more efficiently.

If you determine that your agency should be providing information in additional languages, the next question is necessarily “what information?”  Under Government Code section 7299.7, subsection (c)(1), we are told that the agency must ensure that the quality of information translated and provided is just as “comprehensive, actionable, and timely” as the information provided to English-speaking persons.  At its base, it seems that if your agency were to provide an emergency alert of some kind in English, you also need to do so in other required languages, but we cannot say for certain what the scope of information actually is.  We also know from subsection (c)(2) that the agency must endeavor to use community members with cultural competencies and language skills that can effectively communicate with non-English speakers receiving information and “whenever feasible, native speakers of the relevant languages who also speak English fluently.”  

There are two other provisions of the new law that need mentioning.  First, beginning January 1, 2027, the Office of Planning and Research will begin surveying a sample of local agencies (to occur every three years) to determine how agencies are complying with these requirements.  (Gov. Code § 7299.7(d).)  Because that starts two years after the new requirements go into effect (and three years after the law itself went into effect), it seems that the legislature wanted to provide a bit of a grace period for agencies to learn how to comply.  Second, this new law does not affect any responsibilities required under the California Emergency Services Act, found at Government Code section 8550 et seq.  (Gov. Code § 7299.7(f).) 

Closing Thoughts on Government Code section 7299.7

Clearly, Government Code section 7299.7 is an ambitious attempt to provide emergency services information in languages other than English to those who need it.  But like with any new law, there are some questions that will probably need to be answered via legal counsel.  It could be that additional government guidance will be forthcoming to help answer questions as the commencement date gets closer.  For now, if your agency is concerned about compliance, we recommend reaching out to legal counsel for advice on how to proceed through this uncharted territory.