Texas FF union: Beto's debate comment on shooting response unfair to first responders

O'Rourke's campaign said the candidate shared the story not to criticize the first responders, but to criticize the weapons used in the killing


By Eleanor Dearman
El Paso Times, Texas

AUSTIN —A firefighters union is accusing Beto O'Rourke of throwing first responders under the bus for political gain after the former congressman referenced response times at Thursday's Democratic debate.

O'Rourke spoke about AR-15s and AK-47s being designed for the battlefield before recounting the experience of an Odessa mother in the shooting that killed seven and injured 25. It followed an Aug. 3 mass shooting in O'Rourke's home city of El Paso that killed 22 and injured 25.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke is surrounded by reporters as he walks on an international bridge to cross into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. O’Rourke crossed the border into Mexico for the funeral of one of the 22 people killed in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. (Photo/AP, Christian Chavez)
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke is surrounded by reporters as he walks on an international bridge to cross into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. O’Rourke crossed the border into Mexico for the funeral of one of the 22 people killed in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. (Photo/AP, Christian Chavez)

"In Odessa, I met the mother of a 15-year-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 said.

"Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," he added.

The moment — particularly the latter half where O'Rourke called for the buyback of military-style assault weapons — made national headlines.

But the firefighter's Association on Friday issued a statement contesting part of the candidate's assertion. In the statement, the group's president Tyler Houchin said fire and EMS response to the incident was less than nine minutes.

"These heroes should be commended for their swift response while an active shooter was present in our community, rather than disgraced on national television for political gain," Houchin said.

O'Rourke's campaign said the candidate shared the story not to criticize the first responders, stating they were heroic and saved many lives that day, but to criticize the weapons used in the killing that O'Rourke believes should remain on the battlefield.

The candidate has advocated for an assault weapon ban and a mandatory buyback of assault weapons.

Odessa Fire Chief John Alvarez said records in the incident involving the 15-year-old show the first unit, a fire truck with paramedics on board, was on scene within seven minutes and 21 seconds from the time they were dispatched, Alvarez said.

Alvarez said that exceeds the departments' standard response time of five minutes and 20 seconds.

"When you have an out of an ordinary event, a tragic event like we had that Saturday on August 31st, ... it taxed our resources," he said.

The mother of Leilah Eliana Hernandez, the 15-year-old who was killed, responded to a local TV station's report on the dispute on Facebook. In the comment, Joanna Leyva said her call to 911 wasn't going through and that the response time was longer than 7 minutes. The El Paso Times reached out to Leyva through social media Monday but has not received a response.

Alvarez acknowledged there was likely a delay in getting calls through to dispatch. It's "overwhelming" when so many calls — more than 300 — are going through in the span of an hour, he said.

"We try to provide the best service that we can with what we have," Alvarez said. "There was a lot of separate incidents that we were responding to at that time."

When asked if he shares the sentiment of the Odessa Firefighters Association towards O'Rourke's debate comment, Alvarez said he "tries to stay out of politics."

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©2019 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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