Odessa found itself in the national spotlight again after a comment by presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke during a Thursday night Democratic debate in Houston in which he said there was an ambulance shortage during the mass shooting.
The former Texas representative said there weren’t enough ambulances in Odessa after 36-year-old gunman Seth Ator killed seven people and injured 25 others in a wild shooting spree around mostly northeast Odessa on Aug. 31. Ator was shot to death by law enforcement about an hour after the shooting started in a field near Cinergy Theatre.
The comments didn’t escape the attention of local first responders and have caused a social media stir locally.
Did the city of Odessa run out of ambulances? Technically the answer is both yes and no. Yes because they relied on Midland and private ambulance companies for help but also no because that help from both Midland and the private companies was immediate.
What is clear is that it was a chaotic time and that the 911 center was overwhelmed by calls during the shooting spree. City officials previously said that because it was a holiday weekend, it had a limited number of 911 operators working that day and that it took a while for callers to get through.
Odessa Fire Rescue EMS Chief Rodd Huber said dispatch processed more than 300 calls during the hour the gunman went on his rampage around the city. Huber said in the initial 20 to 30-minute surge that OFR ran out of both ambulances and fire engines.
However, Huber said running out of ambulances is a problem OFR deals with on a weekly basis. Like many public and private businesses in West Texas, employees are difficult to find and staffing shortages are common during this economic boom.
“It’s not an ambulance issue, it’s a staffing issue, so we’ve got reserves,” Huber said. “We can buy more ambulances, but if you don’t have firefighters or EMTs or paramedics to put on them, it doesn’t matter how many ambulances you have.”
O’Rourke’s comment came during the third Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC on Thursday at Texas Southern University in Houston.
The full transcription of O’Rourke’s comments pertaining to Odessa were: “When we see (those weapons) being used against children, and in Odessa, I met the mother of a 15-yr-old girl who was shot by an AR-15 and that mother watched her bleed to death over the course of an hour because so many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa and Midland, there weren’t enough ambulances to get to them in time.”
O’Rourke was talking about 15-year-old Leilah Hernandez. Leilah was an OHS student who was shot to death while her brother, Nathan Hernandez, 18, was injured while the siblings were at car dealership parking lot in Odessa. City of Odessa officials have said that a firetruck was at the scene in 7 minutes and 21 seconds and that an ambulance was there about a minute later.
Huber said there are a total of 11 ambulances with eight of them staffed with paramedics at the eight fire stations. The three ladder trucks and five fire trucks are also staffed with paramedics.
There has to be at least one paramedic on every ambulance, ladder truck or fire truck. Huber said to receive paramedic training a person needs about 50 hours of college. Huber said it can take a minimum of two years before a person has enough college credits to become a paramedic.
“We’ve got a lot of firefighters and EMTs that have yet to go through paramedic class, so we can put them on a fire truck or ambulance if they are a firefighter or an EMT,” Huber said. “We have a lot of those, but you have to have at least one paramedic on every ambulance or fire truck to provide the best patient care possible when we arrive on scene.”
Huber said during the shooting that Midland transported nine victims and that Midland was also looking to Odessa for assistance. He said when that many calls come in “sure, we ran out of ambulances and fire engines but that’s not uncommon.” He went on to say that the city is still processing the data of how long the wait times were for victims at each of the more than two dozen shooting scenes.
Huber said they had AeroCare helping within the hour and private ambulances that were starting to help.
After CBS 7 posted a story Friday on the O’Rourke remarks, Leilah’s mother posted on their Facebook page:
“Cbs 7 and to the city thats a lie and i have proof since i was calling 911 and my call wasnt going through i have the calls where it shows the times that i was calling and since they got there..it was no 7 minutes and nobody knows not even the city because they were not there at the time but my family and I.”