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A text message from Telus informing customers about a test of the national alerting system is shown on a phone in Toronto on May 4, 2018.

Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

Ontario is inviting police across the province to start issuing direct-to-cellphone alerts to warn the public about “active shooters,” such as the gunman who killed 22 people in Nova Scotia earlier this year.

An Aug. 6 memo from a senior public servant in the Ministry of the Solicitor-General obtained by The Globe and Mail tells local police chiefs how, where and when they can start issuing localized “public safety (policing) emergency alerts” in cases of severe and unconventional threats.

By setting clearer protocols for urgent warnings now, Ontario is not waiting for any recommendations that could come from a recently announced public inquiry into the mass shooting, which is expected to look at several issues – including police access to alerting.

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During the shooter’s 13-hour rampage, authorities were crafting a direct-to-cellphone alert to tell Nova Scotians about the threat. But it was never sent because of communications bottlenecks and confusion around how police were supposed to work with the provincial public servants who issue the alerts.

Police in Nova Scotia resorted instead to sending out Twitter warnings during the attack’s final hours, before they shot the killer dead.

Authorities have had the technology to send localized alerts directly to cellphones across Canada since 2018, but the provincial public-safety ministries that control the issuing of these alerts have not always opened up their systems to police. Statistics show that the alerting system is used in starkly different ways and at different rates across Canada, to the point that imminent-threat warnings are almost never sent in some parts of Canada.

That will change in Ontario, with the Solicitor-General’s office telling forces that they are welcome to use the system if they “believe a public safety (policing) emergency alert would have a direct impact on saving lives.”

The memo says that a central provincial-police operations centre in Ontario is staffed and ready to take calls in those rare cases where “the threat is neither isolated nor contained.”

The centre’s commanders “are aware that during a complex critical incident, you will have multiple competing priorities and they will guide you through the process as smoothly and quickly as possible,” the memo says.

It says messages sent to people’s phones can be no more than 600 total letters and numbers, while TV and radio alerts allow for 900 characters. “The message should notify the public what the danger is, and what actions they should take to stay safe such as ‘shelter in place.’”

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Unlike Ontario’s Amber Alerts about missing children – which are always disseminated to millions of people across the entire province – these new kinds of warnings will be localized. “Alerts may be targeted to a city, region, country or township,” the memo says.

Earlier this summer, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police put pressure on the Solicitor-General’s office by calling on the ministry to instigate a national review around police access to alerting.

“A significant governance gap exists that must be addressed with respect to the issuance of police-related civil emergency and terrorism events,” reads a resolution passed during the chiefs’ annual meeting in June.

Representing police leaders from more than 50 forces in the province of Ontario, the association said that police, fire and paramedic services across Canada need to be canvassed about their alerting needs, including in cases involving “active shooters, missing persons and other localized emergencies.”

“It’s been an issue for us for some time,” Detective-Superintendent Chris Newton, who heads the association’s emergency-preparedness committee, said before the memo was sent this week.

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He said police chiefs across Ontario were struck by the Nova Scotia tragedy and concerned about whether something similar could happen in their own jurisdictions.

“We believe we’ve needed a means for some time to alert citizens in the province about an impending threat that doesn’t fall into the parameters of an Amber Alert or an extreme-weather event,” Supt. Newton said.

The police chiefs’ resolutions argued that better alerting isn’t just good policy – it’s the law. It pointed out that police services in Canada have faced a heightened legal obligation to warn the public about threats ever since the 1990s, when a woman known as Jane Doe successfully sued the Toronto Police Service for failing to put out warnings about a serial sexual-assault suspect.

In 2016, several police groups from across Canada filed submissions to a federal regulatory body in which they expressed hopes that they would have the ability to issue cellphone alerts.

In that way, these police groups argued, they could better deal with all manner of threats. One officer invoked the example of the 2014 attack on Parliament Hill, where a gunman shot a Canadian Forces soldier dead. The gunman was later killed by authorities while storming Centre Block.

“With today’s hazards, the need [for police alerting] has never before been as urgent,” Superintendent Scott Nystedt of the Ottawa Police Service wrote four years ago.

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