Organized chaos. The worst day of my life. Beyond the scope of anything I’ve dealt with. It seemed unreal. No time to feel.
Those are a few phrases two shift supervisors used to describe the working conditions on Sunday morning, April 19 2020 at the RCMP Operations Communications Centre (OCC), where 911 operators answered call after call from citizens reporting more shooting victims.
Those calls followed on the heels of a horrific night in Portapique where homes were burned and 13 people were murdered by a man driving a fake police car.
On Sunday morning, the OCC was fully staffed with seven call-takers and five dispatchers tasked with interpreting and relaying a flood of information to dozens of RCMP officers searching for the killer.
In the two hours after 9:30am, when a member of the public called 911 to say Lillian Campbell had been shot during her morning walk in Wentworth, OCC Dispatcher Bryan Green told members of the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC) “we were trying to find him, too. Through the phone calls that were coming in. It soon became clear that every call that came in was worse than the one before and we were always 30 seconds behind him.”
Green, who throughout his testimony worked hard to maintain his composure, was asked by MCC Legal Policy advisor Krista Smith to describe some of the most difficult moments that morning.
“When [Cst. Heidi [Stevenson] was killed, it was like the air went out of the room,” said Green. “Everything stopped for about one second. But we had to go on. That was hard.”
Kirsten Baglee, the second shift supervisor working with Bryan Green, said she will never forget how she felt when Cst. Chad Morrison’s voice came over the police radio.
“It was tough when Chad was shot,” said Baglee. “When he went to the (Milford EHS) ambulance station and was waiting for an ambulance. After Heidi had been killed, I’ll never forget him coming on the radio, so unassuming, ‘do we know where my ambulance is? Because I’m bleeding pretty badly.’ And me getting back on the phone and asking the ambulance where they were…knowing that of course they need to be safe in their response but I had a police officer out there who needed help! So I tried to tell them, ‘he’s in this car and he doesn’t have a stripe on his pants. This is his name and he needs your help.’”
At this point, Baglee broke down in tears at the memory of the frustration and grief compressed into two short hours that Sunday morning.
The paramedics assigned to help Morrison didn’t respond immediately because their boss at EHS Dispatch had told them to remain indoors, because the whereabouts of a killer masquerading as a policeman were unknown and posed a threat to the ambulance crew.
“Our job is to keep our members safe,” recalled Baglee tearfully. “It was our worst nightmare, yet we couldn’t take time to emotionally react because we had a job to do.”
Both Baglee and Green praised the call-takers and dispatchers they supervised that morning, noting many were highly experienced and reacted as they had been trained. (Two employees also took calls from other parts of the province, including a domestic violence incident.)
According to Green, “99.9% of the information” the OCC received was relayed accurately despite the increasing stress and high call volume. Between 11am and 11:30 pm, Green said operators answered 80 calls, and because of the volume were forced to hang up on other citizens if their information was not time sensitive.
OCC still struggling
Baglee and Green told commissioners with the MCC that more than two years after the traumatic event, there are many employees who have not come back to work and some who have left for other jobs.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, people who worked at the 911 Communications Centre Saturday night and Sunday morning received between five and seven days off. Peer support sessions were provided the same day for those who worked Sunday. Online sessions with psychologists were made available and continued later through the Employee Assistance Program.
“Help was there,” agreed Green and Baglee, who have both taken turns as Acting Commander of the OCC. Was it enough help? asked MCC lawyer Krista Smith.
“That’s a difficult question,” replied Green. “Different people may need different things. I know we have lost many good people and I want them to know they did everything they possibly could. One of the hardest things has been the media coverage. We tried so hard and it’s hard to hear the negative.”
Green said the release and publication “by a tabloid” of transcripts of the 911 calls made April 18 and 19 were particularly “painful” for OCC employees who worked those shifts.
At the time of the shootings, the number of full-time operators and dispatchers employed at the Communications Centre in Truro was 50. Today Green said they are “still struggling” and the complement of people available to work is just 24.
The past two years have seen other changes as well. The Operations Communications Centre that was in Truro during the massacre moved to RCMP headquarters in Dartmouth the following year. Perhaps some of the staffing issues relate to the move but that’s an unknown.
At the new Communications Centre, there is no longer a wall between the employees taking 911 calls from the public and the employees dispatching RCMP, ambulances, and fire trucks to respond to calls. Everyone is in one room instead of two. Theoretically, this should improve the flow of information.
The previous separation may partly explain why RCMP Risk Manager Brian Rehill didn’t seem to react to eyewitness information provided to 911 on Saturday evening by the Blair and McCully children and by Andrew MacDonald, each of whom described the killer driving a “police car.” Rehill was located on the other side of the wall, with the dispatchers, when many calls reporting gunfire flowed into the OCC between 10 and 11pm Saturday night.
Although the public alert system known as Alert Ready was not a tool in the RCMP toolbox then, the OCC is well versed on it now. Dispatchers and call-takers receive ongoing training. More technology is coming. A number of Standard Operating Policies have also changed, including one where a RCMP Strategic Communications advisor arrives at the OCC before a tweet or Facebook message goes out to the public. Green said that’s so operators and dispatchers will be ready to expect a higher volume of calls from the public.
“I came to speak today because I felt the Operations Communications Centre needed a human voice, not a transcript,” said Baglee. “We are people doing the best we can.”