Councillor Wade Parker was settling into a Sunday morning at his cottage in Wentworth, N.S., when he got a startling text from a police officer friend around 8:30 a.m.
“He said, ‘We think the guy is heading in your area, block the doors, don’t answer the door if it’s an RCMP officer,'” Mr. Parker said.
It was a shocking bit of news for this rural corner of the world. The surrounding county of Colchester has a population of 50,000 spread out over an area twice the size of New York City. Mr. Parker, who chairs the local police advisory board, had gone to bed the previous night unaware of the escalating mayhem unfolding a few minutes away in Portapique, where the gunman had already killed 13 people.
Mr. Parker hunkered down, but couldn’t help but worry about neighbours who didn’t have the advantage of an acquaintance on the local police force.
“I’m there thinking, ‘Why isn’t that emergency beacon going off?'” he said.
Nearly one week since a lone gunman took 22 lives in a massacre that lasted 13 hours and spanned 100 kilometres, traumatized residents along his tragic route have questioned why they received no official warning of the violence erupting beyond their front doors.
Only a week previous, Mr. Parker’s phone had buzzed with a provincewide alert to maintain physical distancing in light of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, a technology introduced Canada-wide two years earlier with the intention of providing advance warning of dangers – including, potentially, active shooters.
But across the country, those good intentions have been plagued by faulty execution. The information vacuum that engulfed Colchester County last weekend could well have occurred anywhere else in the country where police and media resources are thin and centralized access to an emergency alert system has too many bureaucratic speed bumps to handle fast-moving threats.
Nova Scotia RCMP opted to instead use Twitter to push out urgent alerts to its 90,000 followers.
But, like 82 per cent of the people in the country, Mr. Parker has no Twitter account.
“Doing what they did with Twitter was totally wrong for the geographics of our area,” Mr. Parker said. “I don’t have a Twitter account. I’m not on Facebook following the RCMP. At council right now we’re looking at installing the internet in rural areas. Well this is one of those rural areas where not everyone has the internet. That should have been considered when they were thinking how best can we get this message out. The answer definitely wasn’t the internet by any means. They were setting themselves up for failure right off the get-go.”
Ten hours before the councillor got his warning, the gravity of the situation was already becoming clear to emergency responders scrambling to the scene of a house fire in Portapique. During EMS and fire department radio calls between 10:38 p.m. and 11:21 p.m., dispatchers requested at least three ambulances to treat gunshot victims and one medic offered a grim assessment of the threat: “So there’s a structure fire, there’s a person down there with a gun. They’re still looking for him. The patient we have got shot by him. He was just down there observing the fire. ... It’s very vague what’s going on down there. But there is for sure multiple patients down there.”
Police set up two perimeters, not realizing the gunman had slipped away driving a replica RCMP cruiser. Officers fanned out to homes in the area to warn residents about the gunman. That approach was limited. With a complement of around 52 officers, RCMP staffing in Colchester County is stretched at the best of times. Local politicians have looked into scrapping their contract with the Mounties, because of cost and service issues, and having the municipal force based in Truro take over policing for the county.
On this night, such a change would have made little difference. Public warnings needed to go out quickly over a far broader area than any number of boots on the ground could provide.
System used mostly for weather
As rare and horrific as the scene was, the designers of Canada’s Alert Ready System had envisioned just such a scenario four years earlier. At the time the system’s specifications were under debate among regulators and telecom providers, a spokesman for Canada’s cellphone industry said it could have great utility where a shooter was on the loose.
“If you have a very specific situation, a shooter situation, where you wanted people to stay inside a building instead of going out, or not be going into another building – you could send this one message saying 'seek shelter,’” Kurt Eby, then a spokesman for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, told The Globe and Mail in 2016.
Two years later, in April, 2018, the Alert Ready launched its cellphone warning capability. From that date forward, blaring notifications have issued highly localized warnings across areas as big as a province or as small as a city block.
But the vast majority of the alerts since then have related to relatively predictable weather events – especially tornadoes. Police and public safety officials have had little use for it save for Amber Alerts about abducted children.
The system’s promise in terms of dealing with rare but potent security threats – such as active shooter alerts – remains relatively untested.
“The Alert Ready System has never been used to disseminate a warning about terrorists or active shooter situations in Canada since the system was created,” Martin Belanger, a spokesman for Pelmorex, the system’s operator, said earlier this week.
Active shooters are a relatively uncommon phenomenon in Canada. But they are not unheard of.
Last summer, police engaged in a cross-country manhunt for two young men who killed three people. In that case, the RCMP followed a similar playbook for their public notifications, relying heavily on social media as the killers traced a path from Yukon to northern Manitoba.
It was a battle-tested communications strategy. During the 2014 Moncton shootings, as a killer bent on hunting police officers roamed the city’s streets, the RCMP’s local communications team issued terse warnings to lock doors and remain inside. Those messages were instantly picked up by local media, amplifying their effect within minutes of being issued.
In rural regions such as northern Manitoba or Colchester County, however, the news media are thin on the ground. The amplification effect doesn’t necessarily take hold.
At a Wednesday news conference, provincial RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather said delays in the chain of command slowed their ability to get an urgent message out. He described a series of calls that had to be made to connect on-the-ground officers who were working furiously to find the shooter with those who would write and broadcast the alert.
“A lot of the delay was based on communications between the [Emergency Management Office] and the various officers – and then a discussion about how the message would be constructed and what it would say.”
The perils of such a byzantine approval process were foreseen years ago.
When the system launched in 2018, it was intended to be as frictionless as possible. Communications bottlenecks cost lives, parliamentarians were told, and the alert system would push messages to residents in an instant.
“It’s designed so that there is no human intervention,” said Paul Temple, Pelmorex’s then-senior vice-president, strategic and regulatory affairs. “When an alert is submitted by an authority, unless they are not following the technical protocols, it goes through without any human intervention in a matter of seconds.”
But the system had an uneven rollout across the country. Alberta and Saskatchewan had opted for a decentralized system that gave power to municipalities and local emergency management officials to issue alerts.
Saskatchewan has used the system most frequently and trained hundreds of municipal users to issue localized alerts.
In Ontario, the provincial police force was granted full power to disseminate Amber Alert warnings, eliminating much of the bureaucratic friction that can delay possibly urgent messages intended to save children’s lives.
But others maintained a more centralized approach. “British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, have decided to maintain alerting authority at the provincial level, and not delegate further,” Public Safety Canada official Patrick Tanguy told the Senate in 2018.
The upshot is inconsistency about these sorts of decisions – the warnings you get depend on where you live.
Data from Alert Ready show 135 threat-to-life emergency warnings were issued in 2019 – and that more than half of them had to do with tornadoes. Nearly all of that year’s overall alerts (125) occurred within just three provinces – Ontario (49), Saskatchewan (39) and Alberta (37).
In 2018, Alert Ready sent out 117 emergency alerts – also mostly about tornadoes. Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta were the biggest users of the system that year.
During the same two-year period, Nova Scotia issued none, according to Alert Ready.
Some provinces say they are in the process of weighing whether the system is suitable for active shooter events.
“The B.C. RCMP are working with [Emergency Management B.C.] to examine its usefulness in high risk public safety matters, such as an active shooter situations,” said Sergeant Janelle Shoihet, a spokeswoman for the Mounties in that province. She added that “we always continue to look for new methods of disseminating important information in a timely manner.”
B.C. issued a tsunami alert in early 2018 but it doesn’t appear to have used the Alert Ready system since then.
The Globe put questions to RCMP headquarters in Ottawa about whether the national police force has initiated any warnings or developed directives about them. No replies were available at press time.
Cellphone alert attempt not completed
Last weekend’s shootings offered a fateful test of Nova Scotia’s decision to maintain a highly centralized alert system.
Twelve hours into the massacre, Nova Scotia’s provincial emergency management office tried to initiate a cellphone warning to the public.
On Sunday around 10:30 a.m, the EMO – which manages access to Alert Ready in the province – called the Mounties to ask them whether they might want to use the system to send a warning. Police and public safety officials spent more than an hour ironing out the contents of the message.
The cellphone Alert Ready warning was never completed. As the pathway to communications bogged down, the gunman was shot dead, shortly before noon.
The provincial Emergency Management Office didn’t respond to questions from The Globe.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki has said the threat warnings sent out by the force will be reviewed. “In any incident such as this, we always have to look back at what we did,” she said.
Leah West, a national security and intelligence lecturer at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, said last weekend’s fast-moving, life-and-death scenario probably shouldn’t have been only the second time the province used the Alert Ready system.
“Emergency response should be tested and rehearsed,” she said. “You can think of it as building muscle memory.”
On Friday afternoon, as authorities in Nova Scotia faced intense scrutiny for a lack of public warning the previous weekend, cellphones throughout much of the province pinged with an unrelated emergency alert. Police in the Halifax Regional Municipality were investigating two reports of shots fired, it said. “Residents are advised to shelter in place and refrain from travel until being advised otherwise.”
It is the first known use of the Alert Ready system in Canada to warn the public about a possible shooter. Police later said that there was no evidence any shots had actually been fired.
Regardless, “It’s absolutely a good sign," said Mr. Parker, the councillor, whose cellphone and car radio buzzed with the notification. “Any time you have a shooter, that alert needs to be used.”
With reports from Ian Bailey, Stephanie Chambers and Greg Mercer
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