When you call 911 for a medical emergency, you expect the nearest ambulance to be there in just a few minutes. But if your call isn't life threatening you could wait as long as 25 minutes to get a ride to the hospital.
Everyday there are almost 200 calls for ambulances. Four ambulance companies and the Milwaukee Fire Department are expected to handle every single one.
The fire department responds first, but unless it's life-threatening a private ambulance company takes you to the hospital.
Bell, Paratech, Curtis and Meda Care Ambulance companies divide up the city. If one can't handle a call, another company swoops in.
"You get a bit of a cascade or a domino effect," said James Baker of Curtis Ambulance. "This area gets overwhelmed, the next area gets overwhelmed, the next area gets overwhelmed."
If that company is too busy, it goes to the next. If all four private ambulances have too many calls, MFD waits on the scene until one of their own responds.
The I-TEAM found private ambulance companies are strained, and can't meet the city's standards for something called a turnback.
When an ambulance company turns back it is telling the city it can't handle the call.
The city wants companies turning back calls in their service area less than 4 percent of the time.
Bell Ambulance makes the grade at 0.51 percent. Curtis Ambulance has a rate just above the standard at 5.64 percent. Paratech and Meda Care are owned by the same company. Meda Care has a turnback rate of 9.28 percent. Paratech ad a rate of 9.86 percent.
"Our availability to turnaround or complete a call in a timely manner is different than some of the other providers in their respective areas," said Chris Walters of Paratech.
Each company has unique challenges, but all share a couple of issues stressing the city's emergency response system.
All four of the companies have several vacancies to fill, but because of the way they're paid, they are struggling to find new employees.
"We're not going to have ambulances to send to people and that's not right," said James Lombardo of Bell Ambulance.
Ambulance companies bill insurance companies for every run they make. They say rate they are paid from Medicaid has not changed in at least a decade, and a raise in those rates would help solve some of their hiring issues.