DENVER -- As the horror unfolded for police first on the scene of the Colorado theater massacre, the officers repeatedly sent out urgent pleas for more ambulances even as a two-man crew and their rig were idling just a few miles away.

Radio traffic from last Friday's shooting in Aurora, Colo., showed emergency personnel struggling to grasp both the scope of the tragedy and mobilize a response.

While some ambulances were quickly called to duty, it took dispatchers more than 20 minutes into the crisis to ask the Cunningham Fire Protection District and other nearby agencies to provide aid at the multiplex in suburban Denver.

By the time the Cunningham crew arrived, it was more than a half hour after authorities got first word that a gunman opened fire at a packed midnight showing of the new Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises," killing 12 people and injuring dozens of others.

The ambulance delays came during crucial minutes for the injured victims, though it's not clear whether a faster response would have saved more lives.

Officials have declined so far to release call records of the response, and the Aurora Fire Department declined to discuss the handling of ambulances from that night.

Experienced emergency responders say no response will ever be perfect. Residents in the Denver area are well aware of the turmoil that comes with mass tragedies, as police were criticized in 1999 for waiting outside Columbine High School instead of immediately pursuing two gunmen who went on a killing rampage inside.

"You always find things that you can improve the next time," said Robert Finn, a retired police and fire chief from the Dallas area who added that officials will usually conduct a post-incident analysis after big tragedies.

On the police radio transmissions, officers said they lacked sufficient medical support for about 30 minutes after the 911 calls came flooding in around 12:39 a.m. and that medical teams didn't report getting inside the theater for about 24 minutes. It wasn't clear whether police efforts to secure the multiplex contributed to the delay in getting medical teams inside.

Dispatchers began their response by quickly sending one ambulance to the scene, followed by another about three and a half minutes into the response. A third ambulance soon followed.

Over the next several minutes, first responders reported on the extent of the casualties, calling in the numbers of wounded in their areas: One said three were shot in one location. Another said someone was shot twice in the back. A third asked that rescue personnel go into the theater to help "multiple victims."

About nine minutes in, one officer in an urgent voice declared bluntly: "I need as many ambulances as we can." Four had been dispatched at that time, according to one person on the scanner traffic.

An officer said he was going to take a victim in his car.

Eleven minutes in, a first responder again barks: "Dispatch, get me some ambulances!" A coordinator replied that Rural/Metro – the private ambulance provider for the area that also declined comment on the response – was sending all available units in Aurora.

The Cunningham unit, however, had not been called and sat idle for 10 more minutes. The department operates separately from Aurora officials but coordinates with them on a near-daily basis.

District Fire Chief Jerry Rhodes said one of his units on duty that night had no idea about the turmoil unfolding a few miles away, in part, because they were likely sleeping due to the 24-hour-long shifts they typically staff.

Rhodes said the district's crew, including one paramedic and one emergency medical technician, received the plea for help at 1 a.m. – about 21 minutes after officers first began rushing to the scene.

Denver Health Paramedics, which had two ambulances on the eastern side of Denver that is closest to Aurora, got its call to provide support three minutes after Cunningham. One of the units was eight minutes away.

West Metro Fire Rescue also got a similar call to send medical support – 15 minutes after the Cunningham request.

Medical teams that were first to arrive appeared to deal with the wounded as they came upon them, which meant first handling the moviegoers who made it outside. That left other severely wounded patients inside the facility.

While fire officials in Aurora declined to comment about how they responded, Deputy Chief Chris Henderson told reporters after a brief memorial service Wednesday night that the firefighters did an incredible job.

"The lives that were saved that night. That's the comfort you take from this," Henderson said.

Scot Phelps, an experienced paramedic who works at an emergency management academy in New York, said it was clear that the lack of ambulance transport was a problem in Aurora. He said that could be due in large part to the structure of modern emergency systems, which he said are poorly funded, leaving few ambulances readily available.

Before the aid call went out to the other agencies, officers repeatedly implored dispatchers for more medical support and bemoaned the resources they had at their disposal. At one point, they also asked for an accounting of what resources were on the way.

"To be honest with you, sir, I don't know an exact count of ambulances," one person said. They added that two more ambulances were getting dispatched then.

Over the span of 10 minutes, officials mentioned multiple times the situation of a child who they could not evacuate from the theater and needed rescue. About 15 minutes in, one officer asked whether he had permission to take victims with his car.

"I have a whole bunch of people shot out here and no rescue," he said in a hurried tone. The response came immediately: "Yes, load them up, get them in cars and get them out of here."

At 18 and 20 minutes in, police coordinators repeated their calls for more medical assistance. At 27 minutes, an officer was still reporting that they were loading patients into the back of patrol cars. "Any ambos we could get would be nice," he said.

Thirty minutes into the chaos, an on-scene commander made a final, exasperated plea. He asked about Cunningham's resources and whether another private company in the area – AMR.

"Anybody else that's in the area that we can contact?" he asked. "Maybe Cunningham? Somebody that we can get a hold of? AMR? Anybody?"

The response came back from a woman's voice that sounding equally worn. "We're working on finding additional transport rigs to assist us with transporting from the scene," she said.

___

LISTEN: AUDIO ARCHIVES OF THE FIRST HOUR OF POLICE, FIRE RESPONSE TO SHOOTING, VIA RADIOREFERENCE.COM [WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT, LISTENER DISCRETION IS ADVISED]

AUDIO ARCHIVE 1: 12:11AM - 12:42 AM (incident begins at 28:00) AUDIO ARCHIVE 2: 12:41 AM - 1:11AM AUDIO ARCHIVE 3: 1:11AM - 1:41AM

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  • The undated photo provided by the family shows Alex Teves. Teves, 24, was one of the victims killed in the Friday, July 20, 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. (AP Photo/Teves Family)

  • Jessica Ghawi

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  • This undated photo provided by the Larimer family shows John Larimer. Relatives have identified Larimer, a U.S. Navy sailor, as one of the victims killed by a gunman at a showing of the new Batman movie, early Friday, July 20, 2012, in Aurora, Colo. (AP Photo/Larimer family)

  • This undated photo provided by Robert Sullivan shows Veronica Moser-Sullivan, the youngest person slain in the July 20 attack that left 12 dead and dozens wounded during the Aurora theater shootings. Robert Sullivan, Veronica's grandfather, wants a thief to return pictures of the child that were stolen from his home in a burglary this week. He said Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 that four cameras were stolen, including one that had a memory card with more than 40 photos of Veronica at a school celebration. Other images show her at a playground. (AP Photo/Robert Sullivan)

  • This undated photo provided by the family shows Jonathan T. Blunk, 26, of Aurora, Colo. with his two children. Blunk was one of the victims in the Friday, July 20, 2012 Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting. (AP Photo)

  • This undated photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows Jesse Childress. The 29-year-old, from Thornton, Colo., was one of the victims in the Friday, July 20, 2012 Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting. Childress was an Air Force cyber-systems operator based at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force)

  • Alexander J. Boik

    This undated image provided by the family shows Alexander J. Boik, known as AJ. Boik was one of the victims in the Friday, July 20, 2012 Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting. (AP Photo)

  • Matt McQuinn, Samantha Yowler

    This undated photo provided by the family shows Matt McQuinn, left, and Samantha Yowler. McQuinn was killed and Yowler was wounded in the Friday, July 20, 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting. (AP Photo)

  • This photo provided by the family shows Micayla Medek. Medek, 23, is one of the 12 people killed when a gunman barged into a crowded theater, set off gas canisters and opened fire as spectators dove for cover and tried to flee, Friday, July 20, 2012, in Aurora, Colo. Dozens of others were injured, including 11 in critical condition. (AP Photo/Courtesy of the family)

  • A tribute to movie theater shooting victim AJ Boik, is shown along with his photo, on a message table Saturday, July 21, 2012, at a vigil at Gateway High School in Aurora, Colo., Boik, was a student at the school and was killed along with 11 others when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

  • This photo provided by The Cowden Family shows shooting victim Gordon W. Cowden. Twelve people were killed and dozens were injured in the attack early Friday, July 20, 2012 at the packed theater during a showing of the Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." in Aurora, Colo. Police have identified the suspected shooter as James Holmes, 24. (AP Photo/The Cowden Family)

  • Jonathan Blunk, Jesse Childress, Gordon Cowden, Jessica Ghawi, John Larimer, Micayla Medek, Alex Sullivan

    This combination of photos provided by their families shows seven of the 12 victims in the Friday, July 20, 2012 Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting. Top row from left are Jonathan Blunk, Jesse Childress, Gordon Cowden, Jessica Ghawi, and bottom row from left, John Larimer, Micayla Medek, Alex Sullivan. (AP Photo)

  • This Sept. 20, 2011 photo provided by The Sullivan Family, shows shooting victim Alex Sullivan. Twelve people were killed and dozens were injured in the attack early Friday, July 20, 2012 at the packed theater during a showing of the Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." in Aurora, Colo. Police have identified the suspected shooter as James Holmes, 24. (AP Photo/The Sullivan Family)

  • The Bass Pro Shops store in Denver, Colo. is shown, Saturday, July 21, 2012. The is store is where the gunman in Friday's movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., allegedly purchased two of his weapons. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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  • Tom Sullivan , holds a photograph of his son, Alex Sullivan, as he pleads with the media to help him find his son, outside Gateway High School on Friday, July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colo. Alex Sullivan, was celebrating his 27th birthday by attending midnight premiere of the Batman movie Friday night. A gunman wearing a gas mask set off an unknown gas and fired into the crowded movie theater killing 12 people and injuring at least 50 others, authorities said. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)

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  • Eyewitness Chandler Brannon, 25, sits outside Gateway High School where witnesses were brought for questioning after a shooting at a movie theater showing the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises," Friday, July 20, 2012 in Aurora. A gunman wearing a gas mask set off an unknown gas and fired into the crowded movie theater killing 12 people and injuring at least 50 others, authorities said. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)

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  • Police cars in front of the Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colorado where a gunman opened fire during the opening of the new Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises" killing at least 15 people and wounding 50 others on the morning of July 20, 2012. The shooting suspect in custody after at least 12 people were shot dead and around 40 were wounded at a movie screening in the United States has been identified as 24-year-old James Holmes, US media said Friday. Television networks cited the FBI as saying that Holmes, from the town of Aurora, Colorado, scene of the midnight shooting at a screening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises," did not appear to have any known terrorism connections. (Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/JONATHAN CASTNERJONATHAN CASTNER/AFP/GettyImages)

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  • Police break out a window of an apartment where the suspect in a shooting at a movie theatre lived in Aurora, Colo., Friday, July 20, 2012. As many as 12 people were killed and 50 injured at a shooting at the Century 16 movie theatre early Friday during the showing of the latest Batman movie. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

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  • Judy Goos, second from left, hugs her daughters friend, Isaiah Bow, 20, while eye witnesses Emma Goos, 19, left, and Terrell Wallin, 20, right, gather outside Gateway High School where witness were brought for questioning Friday, July 20, 2012 in Denver. A gunman wearing a gas mask set off an unknown gas and fired into a crowded movie theater at a midnight opening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises," killing at least 12 people and injuring at least 50 others, authorities said. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez)

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  • A SWAT team officer stands watch near an apartment house where the suspect in a shooting at a movie theatre lived in Aurora, Colo., Friday, July 20, 2012. As many as 12 people were killed and 50 injured at a shooting at the Century 16 movie theatre early Friday during the showing of the latest Batman movie. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

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  • Police are pictured outside of a Century 16 movie theatre where as many as 12 people were killed and many injured at a shooting during the showing of a movie at the in Aurora, Colo., Friday, July 20, 2012. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

  • Police are pictured outside of a Century 16 movie theatre where as many as 12 people were killed and many injured at a shooting during the showing of a movie at the in Aurora, Colo., Friday, July 20, 2012. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

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  • Police are pictured outside of a Century 16 movie theatre where as many as 12 people were killed and many injured at a shooting during the showing of a movie at the in Aurora, Colo., Friday, July 20, 2012. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

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  • People gather outside the Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., at the scene of a mass shooting early Friday morning, July 20, 2012. Police Chief Dan Oates says 12 people are dead following the shooting at the suburban Denver movie theater. He says 50 others were injured when gunfire erupted early Friday at the Aurora theater. Oates says a gunman appeared at the front of one of the Century 16 theaters. <em>Photo Credit: Karl Gehring, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/exposure/" target="_hplink">Denver Post</a>. </em> / AP

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