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Police block the highway in Debert, N.S., on April 19, 2020.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The radio communications system used by the RCMP during Nova Scotia’s mass shooting worked as it was designed to – even if officers struggled to get messages through because of network congestion, officials told an inquiry Thursday.

The system, known as Trunked Mobile Radio 2, is designed to allow authorized users and organizations to communicate with one another on multiple channels through so-called talk groups. During emergencies – like the killing spree that claimed the lives of 22 people over a 13-hour period on April 18-19, 2020 – the system can get overwhelmed.

“It’s important to understand that radio frequency is not infinite and systems such as ours and all public safety systems cannot be designed and engineered based on what might happen to traffic in an emergency event,” Matthew Boyle, director of public safety and field communications for the province of Nova Scotia, told the public inquiry investigating the mass shooting.

Radio traffic, Boyle said, may “spike hugely” during an emergency event, and when that happens, the “performance metric” of the system can’t really be relied upon.

In fact, a number of RCMP officers have either testified or told the inquiry during separate interviews that they often struggled during the 13-hour shooting rampage to get through on their radios because of congestion on the network.

“In this case, (the mass shooting) the capacity on the network was fairly well used – it was heavily used during the actual emergency event that we experienced here, but it performed as it was designed to,” Boyle said.

A network analysis that was prepared by the radio system’s supplier, Bell Mobility, indicated that radio calls tripled between 10 and 11 a.m. April 19, 2020, on the radio transmission tower in Londonderry, N.S., about 17 kilometres from Portapique, where 13 of the killings occurred. According to the report, 19 of 590 call requests to that tower received a busy signal.

Trevor MacLeod, Bell Mobility’s director of public safety radio engineering and operations, said Thursday the network experienced “a significant amount of additional call requests” during the mass shooting.

“The network still performed within the (contract) specifications during the entire event on the 18th and the 19th,” MacLeod said.

Still, that increased volume resulted in some frustrations by officers in the field and seems to have played a significant role in a police shooting that occurred outside a firehall in Onslow, N.S., on April 19, 2020.

The incident saw two RCMP officers, Const. Terry Brown and Const. Dave Melanson, mistakenly open fire and miss a man they thought was the rampaging gunman. Their target turned out to be David Westlake, the emergency management co-ordinator for Colchester County.

Melanson told the inquiry in testimony last month that he, along with Brown, decided to fire after he failed to get through on his portable radio and receive instructions from commanders. The inquiry found that he made eight failed attempts to contact commanders using the radio system.

A report on the incident that was released in March 2021 by Nova Scotia’s police watchdog agency cleared the Mounties of wrongdoing and largely blamed jammed radio communications for what transpired. The Serious Incident Response Team said the “sole reason” the officers couldn’t transmit before opening fire was because “there was no available talk path due to the heavy volume of radio traffic.”

Meanwhile, the inquiry also heard Thursday that a radio in the gunman’s replica RCMP vehicle was an older model that would not have had the capability of listening in to the digital radio network used by the RCMP during the shooting.

But during follow-up questioning by commissioner Leanne Fitch, Boyle said it would have been possible to monitor older analogue radios used by organizations such as fire departments.

“We don’t know what band that radio was programmed for (the killer) could have had, for example, a fire department’s frequency on that radio, that would be technically possible,” Boyle said.

“Of course I can`t speculate as to whether or not that may have been the case, but from a technical perspective it’s possible that he could have been monitoring communications from a fire department.”

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