EMS units shut down during fire tragedy

A family of six died in a fire on Olney Street in February.
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Questions about how many EMS units were ready to respond during one of the worst fire tragedies in years.

A family of six died when fire broke out in their east side home in February. Two ambulances that cover their neighborhood had been shut down - taken out of service.

Now for the first time, family members of those who died talk about their loss as 13 Investigates shows you what really happened.

Calls for help from people on I-70 near Olney Street, but no clear address.

"Right off I-70 and Mass Avenue, there's a house fire," said the first driver.

"You can see the flames coming out the windows," said another.

"Don't know if there are people here or not. We need an ambulance here now," demanded a third caller.

For five minutes, firefighters drove around looking for a house on fire. Gilbert Guerra got a call, too.

"Hurry, because there was a fire at my brother's home," Guerra said, recalling the conversation he had with his nephew.

Guerra found a chaotic scene.

The little house where his younger brother Leo lived with a wife and four children was under attack by flames and firefighters, the front door kicked in.

"The blood from the top of your head goes to the bottom of your feet. You know, you just don't know what to do or what to say," he said, describing his emotions.

Gilbert Guerra could only stand and watch..

Now, for the first time, he and his mother are sitting down to talk to 13 Investigates about the city's response to the tragedy that claimed a family of six.

Ambulance Units in the Olney Street Coverage Area Shut Down

On a typical Saturday, 29 ambulances respond to emergencies across the city. On the day of the fire, 25 were in service.

Internal EMS records obtained by 13 Investigates show the city shut down five ambulances due to staffing shortages. Two of the Advanced Life Support units taken out of service were within the Olney Street coverage area. Two other crews were stationed at charity events.

To ease the impact, a truck set aside for "hospital to hospital" transports was put into service.

Mass Casualty Response

Within five minutes of bringing the fire under control, IEMS is forced to jump into action. Firefighters make a series of grim discoveries.

"They didn't know that there was people there. The firemen didn't know that there was people there. They thought it was an empty house. My grandson told them, said, 'There's people in there. People that live there," Isabel Guerra told 13 Investigates.

"Battalion 3 we have a code 700 civilian serious!" a firefighter said on the radio.

Within minutes of entering the home, firefighters locate the victims.

"Start two additional medics instead of one," ordered the Battalion 3 Commander on the scene.

"We have at least four, possibly more. Make this a level one mass casualty," he instructed.

"Miranda was 13, Estaban was 10, Blanquita was eight and Fuentes was six," said Isabel, a grieving grandmother.

Gilbert tried to put into words what it's like to lose a family of six.

"It's something that doesn't...it doesn't go away. The memory, just the fire itself, it doesn't go away. It's just heart-wrenching. Every morning I drive by and I sit there," he said welling up with emotion.

"I didn't know what to do," said Isabel, wiping away tears as older son consoled her.

The family matriarch thought her son Leo, a cancer survivor living with one lung, had gotten sick. She started down the block, but was quickly warned by her daughter not to come a step closer.

"Then I see part of the bodies, you know, from where I was standing," she said, reliving the moment she realized something had terribly gone wrong.

Communications Tapes Reveal Problems

Indianapolis firefighters swarmed each victim methodically and tried to save lives as they waited for ambulances to show up.

"How many ambulances do I have en route?" questioned the medical director at the scene of the fire.

"You do not have an operator! You do not have an operator!" replied a dispatcher.

"Okay, get me an operator," said the medical director, who wanted a dispatcher on the radio to tell him how many EMS crews were responding and their arrival times.

"I seen him (Leo) and his wife towards the front of the house. They were doing CPR and trying to bring them back. Mostly all of the children were in the front, in the front yard there was somebody working on each one of them," recalled Gilbert.

It's not the first time 13 Investigates has found the city's practice of shutting down ambulances creating delays in emergencies.

"I need one more person and a driver please. This is Medic 24," blared the radio traffic that morning.

Medic 24 was the first unit, according to the city's Computer Automated Dispatch system - known as "CAD."

It took the crew 11 minutes to get to the working house fire. That's longer than the nine-minute response time IEMS considers best. Remember, two closer units had been shut down.

Records also show it took Medic 14 27 minutes, nearly a half-hour, to transport Leo Guerra to the hospital. IEMS says that transport time is wrong.

Yet there appears to have been some confusion on the ground.

Our cameras capture firefighters working frantically while racing the 47-year old to the door of an ambulance only to be turned away. The crew was sent in the opposite direction to Medic 14 where the truck sat.

IEMS Responds By Letter

IEMS Chief Chuck Miramonti would not speak with 13 Investigates on camera. In a letter, he calls the transport time for Unit 14 a "CAD recognition error," but never explains exactly why that time is off. No other transport times are in question.

As for Medic 24, Miramonti says it was late getting to the scene because the "crew was searching" for the location along with firefighters.

But both the CAD report and a run review shows Medic 24 was dispatched after an address was confirmed and the scene upgraded to a working house fire. The incident review reads, "At this point, the working companies were ordered, including IEMS Medic 24."

The Guerra family had no idea the city had taken five ambulances out of service that particular Saturday.

"What if something happens and it were more than six? What happens? No ambulance? One or two?" questioned Isabel Guerra.

Dispatchers pulled crews from across the city to fill the gaps.

One of those units was Ambulance 22. It is not equipped for ALS - Advanced Life Support. ALS is critical for cardiac arrest patients including those suffering from smoke inhalation.

"Can you get a couple more squads here for ALS," requested the commander on the scene.

It was an ALS-trained firefighter who stepped in to help with Leo's wife Brandy. Gilbert Guerra says he's never seen firefighters in action like that before.

"They were there with the purpose of saving that life," said Gilbert Guerra.

No one can say if anyone would have survived without the delays. Isabel and Gilbert both wonder what happened inside the small place Leo called home. There were no working smoke detectors.

Family Plans Memorial to Honor Guerra Family

The family plans to tear down the remains of the home and create a space to honor the Guerra Six.

"I go there and I just park there. And I just take a minute and just pray," said Gilbert as he reflected on his brother.

"I can't stay too long. Break my heart...break my heart," added Isabel, who says her son was a good friend to many.

"They'll always be remembered (as) the family that was in the fire. The six that were in the fire," Gilbert said.

In all, 30 Indianapolis firefighters responded to the Olney Street fire, many serving as EMTS alongside 10 IEMS medics.

Despite the confusion, Miramonti says all EMS standards of care were met.

The big question, "Would closer ambulances have a made a difference in the Olney Street tragedy?"

No one knows.

IEMS says it shuts down units based on past run data, but no one can predict where the next mass casualty will happen.

Gilbert and Isabel Guerra say their faith and the kindness of the community are sustaining them.

Most of all, they're pleased to know Miranda and Fuentes are giving life. Both children were organ donors. A four-year-old and 17-year-old received their hearts.