One of the people operating the 911 call centre the night of April 18, 2020 has provided a glimpse into what it was like when people from Portapique, N.S., began calling to report gunshots, murders and fires.
Jennifer MacCallum was one of the civilian supervisors at the RCMP’s operational command centre that was based in Truro at the time. She spoke last September to the inquiry investigating the murders of 22 people.
MacCallum says the other supervisor, Donnalee Williston, took the first call at 10:01 that evening. The person on the phone was Jamie Blair.
“My neighbour is cracked the f–k up,” Blair is quoted as saying in a transcript of the call.
She tells Williston that she thinks her husband, Greg Blair, has been shot. She says he’s lying face down on their deck and not moving.
“There is a police car in the f–king driveway,” Blair adds.
She then goes on to explain to Williston that while there is a police car, there is not a policeman. She gives Williston the name Gabriel, and says he’s her neighbour. She also says he has a big gun.
Jamie Blair can be heard on the phone, calling her children to come into the room. There are whispers, then a scream, and a voice says “help me” before the call drops.
It’s a call that would change the dynamic in the command centre for the next 13 hours.
“There’s no crying on dispatch … so there’s still lots of work to do there,” Williston later told commission lawyers in an interview.
MacCallum said she saw Williston type up her report following the Blair call to get emergency responders on the road.
Then she asked Williston whether she thought the call was “real” since they have taken calls from people experiencing mental health issues who have made reports to 911 that have turned out to be false.
Williston assured MacCallum she thought the call was genuine. They then started the process of getting police to respond.
It was then, MacCallum said, that a second call came in. This time it was the Blair children.
They had escaped their home, where their mother and father had just been murdered, and had taken refuge in the home of their neighbour, Lisa McCully. She, too, had fallen victim to the gunman and her body would later be discovered on the ground outside.
According to MacCallum, the look on her colleague’s face said it all.
“I could tell from his facial expression that what we had was now getting higher. So, I ran over to the other side and what’s when I was briefing the risk manager and when we started making our phone calls,” said MacCallum.
She asked the call taker if he needed anything, but she said he couldn’t talk to her because he was still talking to the children. He would stay on the phone with the children for two hours until they were evacuated by police.
“The questions that were coming in, the mayhem … the incredible fear that was coming from the call-take side over to dispatch was something that I had never lived any of my shifts with before,” said MacCallum.
Inside the centre, the software program used to keep a “rolling log” of information started to have glitches that night because of the volume of material they were trying to enter.
MacCallum said they came to rely more on person-to-person contact to make sure everyone who needed it had the most up-to-date information.
Like the RCMP, MacCallum said people in the call centre struggled with the idea that the gunman was using a fully marked police car. They had accounted for all RCMP cars assigned to Colchester and Cumberland counties that night.
After Jamie Blair said it was a police car, her children and the McCully children also told the 911 operator that they saw a police car. The children also repeated the name Gabe, and MacCallum said she was able to get the name Gabriel Wortman from that.
She looked him up and discovered he was the registered owner of a Ford Taurus decommissioned police car.
“Then there was another Taurus that I know when I was talking to my Halifax Regional counterparts that the ERT had found at his office. So, it was like … like how many … I thought they were done, that’s it,” she said.
She told the commission she didn’t learn the specifics of the replica cruiser until the following morning after her shift had ended.
Co-ordinated rescue from woods
MacCallum said that once a critical-incident commander takes over a file, the 911 centre can usually take a step back and relax a bit. She said that wasn’t the case that night.
MacCallum said that in the midst of everything else, she was on the phone with Clinton Ellison. Ellison was hiding in the woods of Portapique.
He’d gone looking for his brother, Corrie, only to discover him dead. Then Clinton Ellison spotted lights and ran and hid.
He thought it was the gunman. It was actually the first RCMP team to enter Portapique that night.
MacCallum said she stayed on the phone with Ellison until he was rescued by the Emergency Response Team.
She was nearing the end of her shift when the gunman’s partner, Lisa Banfield, emerged from the woods. She showed up at the home of a neighbour, Leon Joudrey, who immediately called 911.
“He ended up passing the phone to her, and I spoke to her, and I spoke to her for a few minutes until ERT was in her driveway. And then I told them both to go out with their hands up and be retrieved by them,” she said.
MacCallum told the inquiry she was shocked to hear Banfield had survived. Earlier in the night, her team pinged Banfield’s cell phone several times in an effort to find her location, with no response.
No break from duties
Williston, who took the original call along with many others that night, left her job in August 2020. She believes RCMP could have done more to help employees recover from their trauma.
“I feel like they should have followed the model after the Moncton shootings and all the dispatchers were sent home for three or four weeks, and just like the whole staff, whoever worked that night wasn’t allowed back in the building for a big block of time,” she said.
“We were back right away, and I think that was pretty damaging.”
Williston said they had three scheduled days off and another to debrief.
MacCallum said that night also affected her.
“At the time I was very adamant that I was going back to work,” she told investigators.
MacCallum said they got good support but she would have been better off taking a break.
“So it might have been more prudent, now that I look back, to have taken, like, right off the bat, as soon as it happened everybody’s given a month off.”
As she ended her interview, MacCallum said the lack of information also bothered her.
“I just wish the RCMP had been a little bit more up front with all the stuff that we had done instead of being a little more quiet or shielded from the public because all that we did is just let the public go down a rabbit hole,” MacCallum said.
“And so many rumours, especially in rural communities, were started, and it just did no good for nobody.”