June 13, 2022

MCC Day 36 – Paramedics and 911 Call-takers’ Experiences

The Mass Casualty Commission is sitting for two days this week, during which there will be a series of “Small Group” sessions, which we are assured is different than a “Roundtable” or “Witness Panel”, despite their similar appearance. The speakers were not sworn witnesses, and their purpose was not to add to the factual narrative, but rather to convey their experiences and let us know what it is like to be a person in their role during something like this.

Unrelated to those discussions, we had been expecting to hear about the resolution of an application to the Commissioners by Frank Magazine (and supported by many others) first thing this morning, but there was no mention of the videos at any point during the day, and (as of 5pm) they are still not posted to the MCC website. This would seem to be contrary to the expectations of the Applicant (as published over the weekend), so something may be going on there. Whatever it is, the Commissioners evidently felt no compulsion to tell us anything about it.

The first small group session involved paramedics Jeff Aucoin, Jesse Brine, Bruce Cox, and Melanie Lowe. Each of them responded to calls during the mass casualty events, with Mr. Aucoin, Mr. Brine, and Ms. Lowe among the first to arrive at Portapique.

It was clear from their discussion that they were provided very little information about what was taking place. They knew there were shootings, and fires, but little else. Mr. Cox stated that this makes it more difficult to keep your own crew safe, when you do not have details. Others felt the RCMP put them in an unsafe situation, by initially having them stage so close to the scenes in Portapique.

Paramedics deal with difficult situations on a regular basis, and seemed well-equipped mentally to handle even this kind of scenario, in the moment. Ms. Lowe described the difficulty of thinking back on helping the four children who were rescued from the Orchard Beach Road side of Portapique. She said she was able to hold it together as they calmly but frankly described events in detail, but now when looking back it can hit her pretty hard. She described it as “haunting”.

The paramedics spoke at length about after-incident support, or the lack thereof. There was some peer contact, but no real access to mental health expertise. They were not offered time off, and there was limited contact with other service providers in order to debrief together. This must be an issue for EHS in terms of recruiting and retaining paramedics, knowing that when you face such difficult situations that you will have limited support. The paramedics today mentioned that two of their peers that were involved in the Portapique response have left the profession.

There was also a discussion of the lack of training for mass casualty or mass shooter events. Mr. Cox made the point that here we have some of the few paramedics in NS who have been involved in such an incident, and they have not been used as resources for training and preparing others to face something similar “when, not if” it should happen again.

In the afternoon, two 911 call takers participated in a discussion. Both Bryan Green and Kirsten Baglee were in supervisory roles in the Operational Communications Centre on the morning of April 19, 2020. They spoke of the sheer volume of calls and information they had to process, and gave a sense of a room where there was ‘controlled chaos’ taking place.

There are usually four call takers and four dispatchers on duty, but on this occasion there were seven call takers and five dispatchers. The volume of calls was way more than either witness had ever experienced. Between 11-11:30am, Mr. Green said there were 80 calls taken by the seven call takers. They had to deflect some calls and hang up on some, but Green felt that 99.9% of the information was processed.

It must take a special kind of person to be a 911 call taker or dispatcher, with steady nerves and the ability to process detailed information from people perhaps not used to conveying information in an organized manner, and under stress they may have never before experienced. The dispatchers were also trying to predict where the killer might have been travelling, but were unable to piece it together. They were passing on information as soon as they received it, to help officers track down the killer.

These participants today were not factual witnesses, and so even though they discussed the events of the mass casualty and noted certain facts, the Commissioners will not give much weight to their statements on factual elements. Had they given a serious contradiction to an important part of the factual narrative, the witnesses would have had to be called back and been sworn in as witnesses and be subject to the usual witness treatment.

Tomorrow, there will be a small group session in the morning, involving “service providers” from Victim’s Services, the NS Medical Examiners office, and a funeral director. In the afternoon, MLA Tom Taggart and Colchester Mayor Christine Blair will be part of a discussion.