Ambulances lagged as Aurora cops pleaded for help

Aurora police officer outside Century 16 theater at Aurora Mall after carnage on July 20, 2012 AP

(CBS/AP) DENVER - As the horror unfolded for police first on the scene of the Colorado theater massacre, the officers repeatedly sent out urgent pleas for more ambulances even as a two-man crew and their rig were idling just a few miles away.

Radio traffic from last Friday's shooting in Aurora, Colo., showed emergency personnel struggling to grasp both the scope of the tragedy and mobilize a response.

While some ambulances were quickly called to duty, it took dispatchers more than 20 minutes into the crisis to ask the Cunningham Fire Protection District and other nearby agencies to provide aid at the multiplex in suburban Denver.

By the time the Cunningham crew arrived, it was more than a half hour after authorities got first word that a gunman opened fire at a packed midnight showing of the new Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises," killing 12 people and injuring dozens of others.

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The Denver Post reported that at least six medical responders nearby either weren't dispatched to the theater for at least 20 minutes or were just not called.

The ambulance delays came during crucial minutes for the injured victims, though it's not clear whether a faster response would have saved more lives.

Officials have declined so far to release call records of the response.

Aurora Fire Chief Mike Garcia told the Post Thursday night that "routing ambulances to all patient locations was impossible" because of the "severely congested" scene at the movie theater.

"By using available ambulances and police cars, we were able to transport all on-scene patients within 55 minutes," he told the newspaper in an e-mailed statement. "Our response times were outstanding and critical patients were quickly moved from the scene because fire and police worked together to use all available resources."

Experienced emergency responders say no response will ever be perfect. Residents in the Denver area are well aware of the turmoil that comes with mass tragedies, as police were criticized in 1999 for waiting outside Columbine High School instead of immediately pursuing two gunmen who went on a killing rampage inside.

"You always find things that you can improve the next time," said Robert Finn, a retired police and fire chief from the Dallas area who added that officials will usually conduct a post-incident analysis after big tragedies.

On the police radio transmissions, officers said they lacked sufficient medical support for about 30 minutes after the 911 calls came flooding in around 12:39 a.m. and that medical teams didn't report getting inside the theater for about 24 minutes. It wasn't clear whether police efforts to secure the multiplex contributed to the delay in getting medical teams inside.

Dispatchers began their response by quickly sending one ambulance to the scene, followed by another about three and a half minutes into the response. A third ambulance soon followed.

Over the next several minutes, first responders reported on the extent of the casualties, calling in the numbers of wounded in their areas: One said three were shot in one location. Another said someone was shot twice in the back. A third asked that rescue personnel go into the theater to help "multiple victims."

About nine minutes in, one officer in an urgent voice declared bluntly: "I need as many ambulances as we can." Four had been dispatched at that time, according to one person on the scanner traffic.

An officer said he was going to take a victim in his car.

Eleven minutes in, a first responder again barks: "Dispatch, get me some ambulances!" A coordinator replied that Rural/Metro — the private ambulance provider for the area that also declined comment on the response — was sending all available units in Aurora.

David Patterson, Rural/Metro's division general manager, told the Post that the first ambulance was at the theater 2 minutes and 45 seconds after the call.

The Cunningham unit, however, had not been called and sat idle for 10 more minutes. The department operates separately from Aurora officials but coordinates with them on a near-daily basis.

District Fire Chief Jerry Rhodes said one of his units on duty that night had no idea about the turmoil unfolding a few miles away, in part, because they were likely sleeping due to the 24-hour-long shifts they typically staff.

Rhodes said the district's crew, including one paramedic and one emergency medical technician, received the plea for help at 1 a.m. — about 21 minutes after officers first began rushing to the scene.

Denver Health Paramedics, which had two ambulances on the eastern side of Denver that is closest to Aurora, got its call to provide support three minutes after Cunningham. One of the units was eight minutes away.

West Metro Fire Rescue also got a similar call to send medical support — 15 minutes after the Cunningham request.

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