An RCMP official who is among the Mounties under scrutiny for communications failures during the Nova Scotia mass shooting is calling upon the federal government to provide leadership in Canada’s direct-to-cellphone alerting system.
“We need that federal oversight. We need the support from the federal government,” RCMP Superintendent Dustine Rodier testified at the Nova Scotia mass-casualty commission earlier this week.
In testimony on Tuesday, Supt. Rodier – who led an operational communications centre during the massacre – said police need better training on how and when to use Canada’s Alert Ready system, and better access to it. The federal government could help ensure this, she said, but it plays only a peripheral role in governance of the service.
The inquiry this week looked at public-communications mistakes that marred police attempts to warn the public about a gunman driving a replica RCMP cruiser. The April, 2020, massacre, in which 22 people were killed during a 13-hour rampage, is Canada’s deadliest mass shooting.
Alert Ready’s direct-to-cellphone warning capability was rolled out across Canada in 2018. Yet when the gunman struck, the Mounties did not know how to use it. In fact, police communicators only ever considered issuing a cellphone warning to the public in the minutes before police shot the killer dead. The RCMP had instead relied on Twitter messages to tell the public about the threat. Relatives of the dead say these warnings were neither timely nor detailed, and did not reach enough people.
When inquiry officials asked Supt. Rodier what needs to be done to improve public safety, she said a key action would be to get Ottawa officials more involved in providing training and the guidelines for using it. “I feel at the end of the day that this should be a Public Safety Canada responsibility.”
Currently, that department attends federal-provincial meetings about alerting. The provinces establish the protocols for using public-safety alerts. That leaves police negotiating with provincial officials for access to alert-issuing systems.
Since the Nova Scotia massacre, several of the country’s largest police forces have worked with the provinces to ensure that they have procedures for timely public-safety alerts.
The Mounties now also have national protocols and alerting co-ordinators. Supt. Rodier said such developments mean the RCMP can alert the public about threats. But too many police forces in Canada, she said, remain untrained in how to use Alert Ready.
“It’s been a challenge to all of a sudden be launched into this world of Alert Ready in policing that none of us had any knowledge of,” she told the mass-casualty commission. “There is no governance, there is no legislation, at the time [in 2020], we didn’t have standard operating procedures, we didn’t have policy, we didn’t have training.”
In March, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair co-chaired a meeting of federal and provincial officials who reaffirmed a commitment they made in 2019 to improve governance of the alerting system. An interim action plan was released this spring. Annie Cullinan, a spokeswoman for Mr. Blair, said these governments will continue their “work plan to support the long-term sustainability and enhancement” of Alert Ready.
Outside experts say governance models related to the technology are outdated. “The industry has built this tool and there are certain users that are authorized to log in and blast out a message – but who is training them?” telecommunications consultant Mark Goldberg said.
He pointed out that the federal government does not finance Alert Ready. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, a regulatory body, pays for it with diverted cable-TV revenues.
He said this model raises questions about who should be responsible for training people on how to use the system.
“The CRTC is not the group to be doing this,” Mr. Goldberg said.
The regulator entrusted Pelmorex Corp., a cable-TV weather broadcaster, to build Alert Ready’s technological infrastructure.
This past February, Mr. Blair met with Pelmorex officials to discuss alerting. According to briefing notes released to The Globe and Mail, civil servants told Mr. Blair before that meeting that “events such as the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shootings point to the importance of a consistent approach to public alerting.”
The advisers then urged Mr. Blair to ask whether the cable company could use its clout to address these issues: “Is there a role Pelmorex can play in supporting PTs [provinces and territories] in ensuring a more consistent approach to training?”
Martin Belanger, a Pelmorex executive, told The Globe in an e-mailed statement the company does train civil servants in using its alerting software. But the training “does not touch on alert content or anything to do with when, or where, to issue an alert.”
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