Gated communities still keeping some first responders out

Mother of son who died waiting for help angry first responders couldn't reach him

SAN ANTONIO – It has been more than a year since a 22-year-old man was stabbed repeatedly by his roommate inside their north side gated apartment complex.

Chris Clingan died from his wounds on June 16, 2013, after waiting nearly 10 minutes for first responders to save his life.

Clingan's last words, a plea for help, were recorded by 911 operators.

"I've been stabbed like eight times, I'm bleeding to death," Clingan told Bexar County dispatchers. "I want you to help me please, somebody hurry please, I don't want to die."

Bexar County deputies, EMS, and fire fighters responded to the Regency at Overlook Canyon but they couldn't get to Clingan because they couldn't get past the gate.

The 911 call captured the first responders' desperate attempt to reach Clingan.

"I need a gate code," a dispatcher said. "We already have people there, we're just needing the gate code to get in."

By the time they reached Clingan it was too late. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Twelve months later, Babbette Clingan is haunted by her son's dying words but she can't stop listening to them.

"It just makes me sick to even hear it but I want to hear his voice and I just want to rescue him," Clingan said. "He was just so calm about it all, that just shocked me. It was like he was waiting patiently for them to come help him. He knows they're going to come and they're going to get him, he's not going to die."

Instead of waiting outside, the first responders should have been able to get past the gate in a few seconds.

Since 2010 gated residential communities in unincorporated Bexar County have been required by law to have a siren-operated sensor system (SOS) connected to the gate. It allows first responders to use their sirens to open the gate in about three seconds.

Enforcing that law is the job of Bexar County Fire Marshall Craig Roberts.

Originally Roberts said the apartment complex didn't have an SOS, but it turns out the gate was equipped with one and the first responders had two more ways to get in.

"They had an SOS and they had both a Knox key operating system and a manual override gate," Roberts said.

According to Roberts, the first responders didn't know that information because the name of the apartment complex had changed after it was built and county dispatch records weren't updated to reflect that.

"When the Fire Department responded, they looked for the new name in their records and they didn't see it, so they made the assumption nothing was there," Roberts said. "But the address was still correct and the address showed up in our records as having something."

In the year following Chris Clingan's death Roberts said his agency has been dealing with the issues that prevented first responders from gaining access to the complex.

"One of the problems we had at that time was getting our information from our permitting system to our dispatching system," Roberts said. "So while we had it sitting here in our office, dispatch didn't have that information so now we have a different process that we use."

Roberts said his inspectors are now doing a better job identifying problems and have made inspecting gates a priority.

"The inspector drives up, if there's a gate and it's electrically operated they check that now," Roberts said. "We're in the process of changing our whole permitting and inspection process because of that so that anything we enter in as a critical note on our inspection records or on our permitting records will automatically feed to our dispatch center so that when a call comes in that address will key both the Sheriff's Office and the Fire Department dispatchers that there's an SOS or there's a Knox key system or a keypad with a key code or something like that."

Despite those efforts Roberts said this continues to be a problem because it's been difficult tracking down who's responsible for maintaining a gate in some residential communities.

"We're always going to be behind the curve on this because management companies change, they have repairs made to the gates, sometimes the system is disconnected, new gate companies come in and put in gates that aren't aware that they got to put in SOS's," Roberts said.

While inspectors continue to find noncompliant properties Roberts said another problem has emerged. 

Some first responders haven't been using the SOS system correctly and continue to have trouble getting past some gates.

"The biggest issue that we're dealing with right now is operational errors. Emergency services that respond to this sometimes don't understand how these systems actually work," Roberts said. "What we're finding is that they pull up to the gate and try to turn on the siren and the gate doesn't open because they're in front of where the sensor is."

In an effort to cut down on the operator error issue, Roberts has been meeting face to face with county fire departments and sending emails to various law enforcement agencies explaining how to use the SOS system properly.

Meanwhile, Babbette Clingan is upset this continues to be an issue and holds Roberts and the apartment complex equally responsible for not saving her son.

"It's like one life doesn't matter to them. If that whole apartment complex went up in flames and we had a bunch of children killed, do you think everybody would have paid attention? You know they would have. You see that all time, heads roll," Clingan said. "Something happened, something serious, and my son's life was lost because of it. There's no explanation for me, I think somebody needs to be held accountable for what's happened."

While nothing will bring her son back, Clingan remains hopeful his death will somehow have a positive impact.

"If he could have done something to help other people he would have in a second and him going maybe that will help others. Maybe that will help save other lives by doing this, implementing it everywhere it's supposed to be," Babbette Clingan said. "Him dying will open people's eyes up that it's something that is a necessity, it's crucial to saving lives and he would be happy to know that."

About the Author:

Tim Gerber is an investigative reporter and anchor on the KSAT Defenders team.