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A smartphone and a television receive visual and audio alerts to test Alert Ready, a national public alert system, in Montreal, on May 7, 2018.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Police forces in Canada almost doubled their direct-to-cellphone warnings about active shooters and similar threats last year, according to statistics released to The Globe and Mail, but are generally still struggling to use the technology quickly and effectively.

Authorities issued 28 “civil emergency” alerts for police-related incidents in 2021, up from 15 the year before, after intense criticism about the failure to warn people in Nova Scotia about a mass shooter two years ago this week.

While it indicates a growing awareness about how to sound such alarms, police forces say policy-makers must do more to get them past the gatekeepers controlling access to the technology for emergency alerts.

Since 2018, the national public alerting system, Alert Ready, has allowed emergency officials across Canada to send warnings to all phones in a specific geographical radius. However, as was the case in the April, 2020, Nova Scotia massacre, the system has often stayed silent, even during massive floods and raging fires.

Communications failures during Canada’s deadliest mass shooting are among the issues being explored at a public inquiry. Next month’s hearings in Halifax are expected to hear evidence about the alerting failures as the gunman killed 22 people over a 13-hour span.

Police unfamiliarity with the technology has already emerged as a key issue, according to transcripts of interviews recently released by the inquiry.

“What was your understanding of the Alert Ready system?” commission lawyer Krista Smith asked RCMP Staff Sergeant Allan Carroll in November, 2021.

“Didn’t know it existed. Had no knowledge of it,” said Staff Sgt. Carroll, the district commander on the night of the massacre.

RCMP headquarters in Ottawa told The Globe that they recently produced national protocols to guide police officers on how to send alerts.

“We can confirm that the National Police-Initiated Public Alerts policy was published to the RCMP’s web-based national operational manual on March 1, 2022,” said RCMP spokeswoman Robin Percival.

In an e-mailed response to questions from The Globe, she said she could not release the document. “The policy has yet to be vetted for public release.”

Police forces are worried that alerting failures could arise again during another mass shooting. They are calling on the federal government to start a national conversation around expanding police access to alerting.

Law enforcement leaders and municipal emergency officials are “struggling to navigate the Canadian public alerting landscape,” the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police said in a policy resolution passed last year that pressed Public Safety Canada to meet with provincial emergency managers to correct “significant governance gaps.”

The federal department did not reply to questions from The Globe about how it is addressing the CACP’s concerns.

But it did say that federal-provincial meetings are continuing. “Public Safety Canada has been working with federal, provincial and territorial partners on the continued sustainability and effectiveness of the National Public Alerting System.”

The Alert Ready system was created without federal laws or federal funding. No government department in Ottawa has authority over alerting policies.

The provinces and territories have instead been given latitude to use the shared technology as their emergency officials see fit, even though critics have long argued this amounts to a dangerously diffuse patchwork system.

Police-issued Amber Alerts about abducted children have been relayed for years by Alert Ready. Yet it was not until recently that police started using the technology to warn the public about shootings, gunmen and other violent events.

Such events are categorized as “civil emergency” alerts. Statistics show that of a total of 180 alerts sent across Canada in 2020, 29 were classified as civil emergencies. Fifteen were for “police-related situations” such as gunmen or shootings, said Ryan McKenna, a spokesman for the Pelmorex Corp., the company that oversees the Alert Ready technology.

Pelmorex statistics say that out of 173 alerts sent across Canada in 2021, 39 were civil-emergency warnings. Mr. McKenna said 28 involved police-related situations.

Direct-to-cellphone warnings are just one form of Alert Ready’s “broadcast intrusive” technology. The system has been used since 2009 to issue alerts via television and radio, capabilities that complement the cellphone warning technology added in 2018.

Police forces wishing to send a public alert usually have to route their messages through provincial public safety officials who control access to the technology. Yet a few forces are bypassing provincial bureaucracies and negotiating for “trusted feed” status, which allows them to plug their systems directly into the alerting infrastructure. For example, the Ontario Provincial Police has acquired this form of heightened access.

During the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, the local RMCP detachment discussed putting out an alert, but talks with provincial public safety officials broke down and no message was sent.

The Mounties eventually abandoned the idea and instead used Twitter to disseminate late-stage warnings about the gunman and pictures of the replica RCMP squad car he was driving.

By that point, he had killed more than 20 people and was on the verge of being killed himself during a shootout with RCMP officers.

With a report from Greg Mercer

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