Why Are 911 Calls Not Being Answered on Time?

ByABC News via logo

June 6, 2005 — -- In an emergency, seconds count, and those seconds can quickly become minutes.

Matt Miulli, a 17-year-old high school baseball player in Tampa, Fla., collapsed in January while running laps. Paramedics were on the scene in seven minutes, but all the nearby transport ambulances were on other calls.

So Matt lay there for 27 minutes while his panicked family looked on helplessly. His father, Jim Miulli, said, "I wanted to grab him and throw him in a car."

Matt died at the hospital. Even without the delay, Matt may not have survived because of a pre-existing heart condition. But his case highlights a problem for both ambulance and fire services across the country.

The national response-time goal for fire departments is to be at a fire within six minutes of the first alarm on at least 90 percent of calls.

A groundbreaking analysis by The Boston Globe that looked at more than 3 million fires found only 35 percent of America's fire departments -- professional and volunteer-- are meeting that goal. And the problem seems to be getting worse.

In Tampa, ABC affiliate WFTS reviewed more than 100,000 emergency calls last year and found the average response time in Hillsborough County was nine minutes. The county's fire and rescue chief, Bill Nesmith, says it's just over seven minutes, but agrees there is plenty of room for improvement.

More than 300 people a week are moving to suburban Hillsborough County and sprawling housing developments are popping up to keep pace with housing demands. But fire and rescue units are having a hard time keeping up with the explosive growth.

"We would need 32 fire stations over the next 10 years to get us to the point that we would like to be," Nesmith said.

Matt Miulli's parents were shocked that their community had such a problem. "This is not a third-world country," said Jim Miulli.

But the Hillsborough County Executive Patricia Bean says that while citizens demand quality services, they're not as willing to pay for them.

"Just last week we were out at a town hall meeting and citizens were standing up and demanding, 'I want a new fire station in two years. Two years and I don't want any excuse for why I don't have it in two years,'" Bean said. "Two minutes later he's saying, 'But don't raise my taxes. Whatever you do, don't raise my taxes.'"

Firefighters on the front lines say that even after firefighters arrive on the scene, they still have to hook up their lines and get inside buildings to conduct search and rescue operations.

It's "critical for a fire department to arrive quickly with plenty of people or you have a funeral," said Billy Goldfeder, a firefighter trainer.

That's exactly what happened in Ipswich, Mass., four years ago.

Lisa Collum and her two little girls died when their third-floor home caught fire. They might have survived -- as other family members downstairs did -- if Ipswich had more firefighters on duty. As it was, only one firefighter showed up to answer the initial alarm. Two more firefighters were on other calls.

One of Collum's neighbors said at the time: "You don't want to cut back on public safety and this is the reason why."

But a year after the tragedy, Ipswich residents voted down hiring more firefighters.

All Mark Collum has left are memories of his little girls and his wife. "We lost three people in this house -- three beautiful people," Collum said. "[Lisa's] in heaven with the two girls. And in a better place I guess."

This story was originally reported on "Good Morning America" by consumer correspondent Greg Hunter.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events