Supervisors for the 911 operations centre involved in the Nova Scotia mass shooting of April 2020 say major changes have better prepared them for a similar crisis, but the trauma of the event has cut their workforce in half and left them struggling.
Bryan Green and Kirsten Baglee, who were supervisors in the operational communications centre (OCC) in Bible Hill at the time of the massacre, spoke before the Mass Casualty Commission leading an inquiry into the tragedy on Monday.
Green said there were 50 full-time operators at the time of the April 18-19, 2020, killings, and they only have 24 now. People who are off on long-term sick leave are still holding some positions, Green said, but may or may not come back.
“The magnitude of it was more than any one of us could have imagined,” Baglee said.
“We lost great operators, great employees, great people, that I wouldn’t have thought we were going to lose,” Green added.
Green said the centre is still feeling the ripple effects of the event since they lost some employees as recently as this April, who had held on “as long as they could.”
The centre is trying to restaff “but it’s hard to keep up, so we’re struggling,” Green said.
The inquiry has heard the OCC is where 911 call-takers and dispatchers for RCMP work, and where the RCMP risk manager is stationed. At the time of the mass shooting the centre was in Bible Hill, but moved to the RCMP headquarters in Dartmouth last year.
Green and Baglee described what they experienced when they came into work the morning of April 19, not knowing anything about how a gunman had assaulted his partner, killed multiple neighbours in Portapique while masquerading as a police officer, and set houses on fire before fleeing the community the night before.
The overnight OCC supervisor and risk manager briefed him on what had been happening and the ongoing search for the gunman around 6:30 a.m., Green said, and he recalled wondering, “How is this real?”
Baglee offered to help on the call-taking side of the office, but due to the early COVID-19 precautions, she said they were spacing out staff and there was only room for the seven call-takers working that morning. She added there were five dispatchers on the other side of a wall, and she often ran back and forth to deliver messages that day.
Although in the first few hours Green believed the incident was over and they would eventually find the gunman in Portapique, he followed their policies for an active shooter and helped update the incoming morning crew. But then, he said things escalated just after 9:30 a.m. when the report of a new shooting victim in Wentworth came in.
Over the next two hours the gunman killed many more times, including strangers and people he knew, as he moved across the province in his mock police cruiser and stolen vehicles.
Operators were so busy focusing on incoming calls with vital information — Green said at one point 80 calls were processed within a half-hour — that he and Baglee pitched in to call other police agencies or Emergency Health Services (EHS), and co-ordinated air support.
He added that call-takers were so busy they were sometimes forced to hang up on people if the caller didn’t have new and pressing information.
“Someone described it as turning on a fire hydrant, it just gushed out. The mere fact that they kept any of the information straight was a miracle. I feel like we kept 99.9 per cent of it straight and made sure it got to the people who needed it,” Green said.
As police were on the roads chasing the gunman, both Green and Baglee said they were doing the same thing within the OCC and trying to find a pattern that might point to where he was headed next.
Information coming in with each scene
One of the hardest things was knowing that the only way information about the gunman was coming in was because “something horrific” had happened, Green said, and police always seemed about 30 seconds behind him.
At one point, Baglee said the risk manager, Staff Sgt. Bruce Briers, asked her to call Truro police and tell them to lock down their town, so they could be prepared in case the gunman came their way.
The inquiry has heard the call from Baglee that came into the Truro force at 10:37 a.m., by which time the gunman had already driven through the town’s downtown core.
Truro police Insp. Darrin Smith said in a commission interview that he didn’t have enough information about setting up roadblocks, including where the gunman might be coming from, and felt like the direction was a “panic statement” thrown out to the dispatcher without any real forethought.
But Baglee said she had given the Truro officers every piece of information she knew, and it’s not her job to instruct any police agency on what they do next.
“If you have protocol in place for a lockdown, then I would think that it would be time to start that,” Baglee said.
Soon after that call to Truro, it became clear the gunman was in Shubenacadie as RCMP Const. Chad Morrison radioed he’d been shot by the gunman at 10:48 a.m.
Within minutes, Const. Heidi Stevenson turned onto a nearby highway ramp and collided with the gunman’s mock cruiser head-on, eventually being shot and killed after a gunfight.
“When Heidi was killed … it just felt like the air went out of the room for about a half a second, and then we just went on like it didn’t happen. We had to,” Green said.
Both Green and Baglee said not being able to emotionally react and deal with anything was one of the worst aspects of working the OCC that day, including hearing Morrison asking for help as he hid behind an EHS depot bleeding badly.
“We want to protect our members. That’s our job, is to … take care of them, make sure that they make it home — and we couldn’t,” Baglee said, her voice breaking as she teared up.
“It’s our worst day, our worst nightmare coming true.”
The inquiry has heard about how key pieces of information broadcast across the police radios and called in to the OCC from the early hours of the response in Portapique were either not heard or not passed to commanding officers.
But some of this disconnect might be connected to officers using their radios incorrectly or not properly getting the dispatcher’s attention, as other experts and RCMP members have recently told the inquiry.
Green said Monday it’s important the public realize that staff did their absolute best across both days with the setup and technology they had at the time, and it’s very easy to miss details when stress is high and so much is happening.
The people working the April 19 shift took the next eight days off, while the shift from April 18 had five days off, the supervisors said. While Green said he felt like peer support and connections to psychologists was enough for him, given so many people left the job or are still off sick it could be that more help was needed.
“From Moncton, we were told that people were sent off for a month … and that wasn’t necessarily a good idea, but then again I don’t know if five or eight days was enough either,” Green said.
“I feel like I had adequate support, but if you asked someone else I don’t know what they’re going to answer — but whatever they answer is the right answer.”
Since the mass shooting, both supervisors said dozens of changes have been made to the OCC, including a new setup where both call-takers and dispatchers are in a large open space and risk managers are up on a raised platform in the middle so they can see and hear everything.
Policies around critical incidents and emergency alerts have also changed, and Green said they now have technology and resources he wouldn’t have known to even wish for during the mass shooting.
During a recent major incident, Green said he felt like the event unfolded much smoother, and the response “was more precise.”
Both supervisors said the criticism from Nova Scotians and the media has been difficult for them and their staff, which is why they both wanted to explain their side of what happened across those two days.
“I didn’t want to be another transcript. I wanted the OCC to have representation as humans, as people,” Baglee said.
“We did our very, very best that day. We pulled out all the stops.”
The inquiry will resume Tuesday, when other agencies involved in the response and local politicians are expected to participate in more discussions.