Nova Scotia Mounties say they were unaware of how to use Canada’s Alert Ready cellphone warning system before a gunman killed 22 people in a 13-hour shooting rampage.
Testifying on Tuesday at an inquiry into the country’s deadliest mass shooting, two RCMP officers and a civilian employee described the communications chaos that played out as police struggled to warn the public about a man who was dressed as a Mountie and driving a replica RCMP squad car.
Since the 2020 shootings, police have faced intense criticism for not sending an alert to people’s cellphones and for relying mainly on Twitter to distribute advisories about the active shooter.
The Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission heard testimony that the Mounties had a near complete lack of organizational awareness about cellphone-alerting capabilities. That left them fumbling at their first attempt to issue such a warning – which they never got to send, and which they started crafting only about 10 minutes before the Nova Scotia gunman was shot dead.
The Alert Ready system “was not on our radar. It wasn’t on any police radar across the country,” RCMP Superintendent Dustine Rodier told the inquiry.
“The only conversation I ever had with anyone about Alert Ready was in the days after,” former RCMP Corporal Jennifer Clarke testified.
The civilian RCMP employee, emergency planning co-ordinator Glenn Mason, said that until the morning of the mass shooting he had viewed Alert Ready only as a conduit for weather warnings and notifications about abducted children. “It was ‘shelter in place’ for high winds, tornadoes – something like that,” he said.
The Mounties who testified worked in public communications during the attack, which started in the late evening on Saturday, April 18, 2020, and ended when Mounties shot the gunman dead around 11:30 a.m. the next day.
The Alert Ready system is available across Canada for public officials to send emergency warnings via TV, radio, and since 2018, cellular phones. The technology is in place from coast to coast, but statistics show that provincial governments, which control access, use the system at starkly different rates and for different kinds of threats. British Columbia, for example, had never used it before last summer’s deadly heat wave and wildfires.
This spring, the RCMP posted Alert Ready protocols for its officers that included formally creating national and provincial alerting co-ordinator positions.
The inquiry has heard that the Mounties made no mention of Alert Ready in their communications with each other when the attacks erupted, even as police were looking for better ways to warn the public about the gunman.
A commission document reads: “At 10:47 p.m. on April 18, 2020, the RCMP district commander for Colchester County, Staff Sergeant Al Carroll, contacted Operational Communications Centre (OCC) dispatch supervisor Jen MacCallum to inquire whether community members in Portapique could be contacted by 911 and warned to shelter in place.”
But no such technology existed, so Mounties instead searched through RCMP crime-report databases for phone numbers they could use to call residents of the region.
By 7:30 the next morning, RCMP officers were circulating photos of the suspect and his replica cruiser among themselves, the commission document said. But this information did not reach Nova Scotia RCMP’s Twitter account until hours later.
At 8:02 a.m., almost 10 hours after the gunman killed his first victim, the Mounties issued the first tweet indicating there was an “active shooter situation” in Portapique.
The first tweet to the public that included the 51-year-old suspect’s photo went out at 8:54 a.m. And it was not until 10:17 a.m. that the Nova Scotia RCMP tweeted a photo of the replica cruiser.
Lawyers representing family members have said delays in communicating such vital information cost lives. Nine of the 22 victims were killed on the Sunday morning, most of them after 10 a.m. – including a Mountie who confronted the gunman.
During the attacks, the RCMP issued 12 Twitter posts, five Facebook messages and one news release.
The Mounties didn’t come up with the idea to use cellphone-alerting technology. “It appears that the use of Nova Scotia’s ‘Alert Ready’ public-alerting system was first considered at approximately 8:19 a.m. April 19, 2020 by employees of Nova Scotia’s Emergency Management Office [EMO],” reads a document from the inquiry.
Commission records show that EMO officials started calling RCMP officers at 10:32 a.m. to ask whether they wanted an alert. Police lines were flooded, but the EMO eventually got through. That, in turn, prompted broken-telephone conversations that involved Mr. Mason and officers.
“If you guys want to put out an Alert Ready, they can do that within minutes,” Mr. Mason told a colleague at 11:17 a.m., relaying the EMO’s offer.
“Okay so they got what, a chopper, ready,” replied RCMP risk-manager Staff-Sergeant Steve Ettinger.
“No they don’t have a chopper, they have Alert Ready which is a cellphone alert,” said Mr. Mason, a civilian RCMP member.
“Oh,” replied Staff Sgt. Ettinger, “a cellphone alert. Oh yeah okay.”
The conversation involved shouting messages at nearby commanders for approvals, and closed with a loose plan to have other Mounties craft the text of the message.
But the RCMP officers shot the suspect dead minutes later, shortly before 11:30 a.m.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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