San Antonio fire and EMS received 217,711 emergency calls last year.
That works out to almost 600 calls a day or system overload.
The dispatch center does not have a dozen people answering phones. During each 24-hour shift, dispatch has three.
In an orderly, clockworklike world, the 600 emergency calls would arrive one at a time, every 2.4 minutes no problem for three call-takers.
But in real time San Antonio, emergency calls arrive unevenly sometimes in a trickle, often in a deluge, frequently jamming phone lines.
Worse, sometimes a guy on Line 1 wants an ambulance for a scraped toe while someone phoning for a heart attack victim can't get through.
Unfortunately, cuts, scrapes and minor ailments account for a large percentage of calls.
"True emergency medical calls there are not a whole lot of those," says one veteran paramedic who has responded to dispatches for splinters, toothaches, diarrhea, insomnia and the like.
Into this broken mess steps Fire Chief Charles Hood with a bit of good news. Under the newly approved city budget, the Fire Department will receive $4.5 million for improvements.
The troops wish they were getting more than one new EMS unit (an ambulance, plus equipment and eight to 12 paramedics). But they're glad SAFD is getting 10 new dispatch workers (six who take calls and four who dispatch them to fire or EMS).
"It's a start," Hood says.
Thankfully, the chief makes no pretense about transforming dispatch overnight. Repairing a system in disrepair takes time.
Until then, fire and EMS could sure use the help money can't buy. Good neighbors.
Over the past month, fire incident reports show there have been several. Here's a sampling:
While mowing his grass Sunday in the 2000 block of Beechaven Drive, George Chavez smelled smoke and heard popping sounds.
When he saw the house next door on fire, Chavez told his wife to call 911, then ran to help.
Before firefighters arrived, Chavez began dousing flames with a garden hose. And when he spotted an 86-year-old woman at the front door, Chavez and some passing motorists carried her to safety.
The house suffered more than $50,000 in damage. But thanks to Chavez and others, Esther Contreras escaped.
Five days earlier, children playing with a candle accidentally started a house fire in the 400 block of Surrels Avenue.
Before the first fire unit arrived, an unnamed neighbor found a woman trapped inside. The neighbor forced open the rear door with pruning sheers and led 40-year-old Emma Castillo out of the house.
On Aug. 23, a mother and two young children became trapped inside a burning house in the 400 block of Southwest 38th Street.
A neighbor, Florentino Briones, saw smoke and heard screams.
He broke a bedroom window and pulled the family to safety. Apparently, only the good Samaritan got hurt. An incident report says EMS treated Briones for "glass cuts to his wrists."
The above rescues occurred during the day, when fires are generally small and more easily contained. Some, though, take place in the dark of night. I've written about the 2 a.m. Labor Day heroics of Daniel De La Cruz, the 30-year-old man with Down syndrome.
But another notable rescue unfolded around 5 a.m. Tuesday. Someone began banging on the apartment door of Grace Wilson. In an interview with KENS-TV, she recalled saying, "This better be an emergency!"
The person on the other side of the door said, "It's a fire," and Wilson fled.No one seems to know if the warning came from a neighbor or a firefighter. But we do know at least 75 residents escaped a massive blaze. Sometimes our heroes wear fire hats, sometimes they don't. Sometimes before anyone calls 911, help is on the way.