Nova Scotia

Paramedics say N.S. mass shooting left lasting trauma but few changes at work

A panel of four first responders spoke candidly about how the Portapique, N.S., mass shooting that left 22 people dead and changed the way they approach their jobs. They say their employer did not do enough to support them in the aftermath, or review its response to prepare for future emergencies.

Ambulance teams had no idea gunman was on the loose as they picked up patients

Paramedics put in harm’s way during N.S. shooting, inquiry hears

2 months ago
Duration 2:32
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. Paramedics and dispatchers told the inquiry into the N.S. mass shooting that they were put in harm’s way during the tragedy and haven’t received adequate care or training since it occurred.

It is the children's frankness that has stayed with paramedics Melanie Lowe and Jeff Aucoin. 

The pair picked up kids whose parents had been killed in Portapique, N.S., the night of April 18, 2020. 

The children were likely in shock and could not yet fully understand what had just happened to them as they rode in the ambulance, the first responders recalled Monday at a public hearing of the Mass Casualty Commission in Dartmouth, N.S. 

Two boys had witnessed their parents' deaths, realized the gunman was trying to set their home on fire and escaped to a neighbour's where they hid with their two friends whose mother had been killed on her front lawn.

"The kids weren't holding back, everything they saw, heard, they said … Their voices were calm. It was just surreal, really. Having kids of my own, you empathize with those kids for sure," said Aucoin, an advanced care paramedic based in Amherst. 

Lowe, a primary care paramedic, said it was "nothing that any child should ever see, or hear or experience.

First-response staff with Nova Scotia's Emergency Health Services, left to right, Jesse Brine, Melanie Lowe, Jeff Aucoin and Bruce Cox, testify at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry on Monday in Dartmouth, N.S. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

"And I have a harder time, I think, with it now than I did then." 

A panel of four Emergency Health Services (EHS) first responders spoke candidly about what it was like during the mass shooting that left 22 people dead, including a pregnant woman, and how it changed the way they approach their jobs. 

They also said their employer, EHS, did not do enough to support them in the aftermath or review its response to prepare for future emergencies. 

Aucoin, a paramedic, told the commission he and his coworkers didn't know the seriousness of the situation when they arrived in Portapique. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Aucoin said he and Lowe, the second team of paramedics to be dispatched, realized they were close to danger only after they approached a site at Portapique Beach Road. They could see four fires on the horizon and had little information from police or their dispatchers about what was happening. 

RCMP officers put the patient in the ambulance and banged on the door, telling them to leave. 

"Obviously we were too close, we should never have been sent there, but we didn't know," Aucoin said, adding that usually when police request an ambulance it's considered safe to proceed. 

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O'Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

"They just wanted to get those people out and safe as quickly as possible. But at the same time, I think we were put in a position of danger that we should never have been in. Because we have nothing — no bullet-proof vests, no weapons."

They parked farther away, but it turned out to be near the gunman's escape route. Aucoin said as they realized the shooter might be on foot, they felt like "sitting ducks" and decided to move again.

It was only after their shift ended and they woke up the following day did they learn the full extent of the loss. 

"I just went to sleep thinking it was an isolated incident, then waking up to 19 to 20 people dead," Aucoin said. 

"That could've been us, right. We had no clue … when I realized he was mobile and it kind of really hit me hard." 

Didn't know about replica cruiser

Bruce Cox, an advanced medical dispatcher who was working the following morning, was also part of the panel. He recounted how even as they answered calls, including from people who were discovering bodies, they didn't know to warn callers or their colleagues about a gunman disguised as a Mountie. 

He said the best they could do was warn people to leave scenes and go home. 

"We had no idea this was occurring during our shift," he said.

"Our job is to get information from the callers and then pass it on to responders, paramedics, whomever, so they know what they're dealing with. And we were not given [it,] very very little."

Paramedic Melanie Lowe testifies on Monday. She recounted picking up children whose parents had been killed. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

After a 911 operator interrupted a call — to say that people should not leave home even in response to a direction from police — Cox said he and other dispatchers started to get a sense of what was happening. At that point, they didn't know if an actual RCMP officer was involved.

They don't generally have access to social media at work and it was only after his son texted him pictures of a burning cruiser that he began to realize the gravity of the situation.

Later he learned someone from the RCMP had told his manager, but they had insisted the information could not be shared, Cox said.

'Too bad, so sad'

Jesse Brine, a primary care paramedic, who was part of the first team to respond to Portapique, said he didn't fully learn what happened until he caught up on news coverage before his shift started the following night, on April 19. 

He said he was on edge while responding to a call in another small community that night and the feeling hasn't gone away. 

"My senses were heightened and I was really looking around corners, knowing my surroundings. I notice myself doing that now more often than I used to," Brine said.   

While other agencies put people off work immediately to give them time to process, Brine said the EHS mentality was "too bad, so sad, basically." 

The first responders all said they received calls from members of a peer support team, colleagues that volunteered to check in. But they said they were not trained psychologists and a debriefing held about a month later also fell short.

"At end of the day, where was the support? Where was the care? I just felt like we were left on our own," said Aucoin. 

Cox is an advanced emergency medical dispatcher and intermediate care paramedic. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

No professional help 

Brine also said better care and a debriefing with other agencies might have helped some colleagues who were struggling and have never returned to work.

The first responders also said EHS should be taking more steps to learn from the response to prepare for future critical incidents. 

They'd like to see active shooter training and consideration of better equipment. They told the commission they hoped sharing their perspective publicly would lead to some change.

"If it happened again tomorrow I don't see what would be different from our perspective, from the field perspective, unless things are happening behind the scenes that we're completely unaware of," Cox said. 

Lowe said she had never heard of her employer's internal committee that was providing information to the inquiry.

EHS said in a statement to CBC News that "based on in-depth reviews of [its] own internal processes" it has made changes including expanding a team that prepares for emergencies and training with other agencies.

It said it is working to overhaul some policies and now has a draft plan to relieve employees from duty in some cases. 

EHS Operations also said it wanted to express appreciation for the employees who spoke to the commission.

"We acknowledge the many things we continue to learn about how we could have supported them more fully since that unexpected event," the statement said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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