Top RCMP commanders are seeking a fast track to send direct-to-cellphone alerts that can bypass bureaucracy and quickly warn Canadians about active shooters and other emergencies.
The aim is to clear up the “confusion” and “duplication” that can delay police warnings to the public, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.
But the negotiations, which are happening province by province, are rolling out unevenly. In New Brunswick, the Mounties were given improved access to alerting months ago, while neighbouring Nova Scotia – the scene of Canada’s worst mass shooting – has seen no changes yet.
Canada acquired the technology to send localized direct-to-cellphone alerts in 2018, but with few exceptions only provincial emergency management organizations (EMOs) have been granted the power to issue them.
In April, when a gunman killed 22 people over the course of 13 hours, RCMP and provincial emergency officials in Nova Scotia discussed sending a local alert that could have jolted people into taking shelter. But the alert never materialized, and the Mounties disseminated warnings only on Twitter instead.
In the aftermath, public criticism of the communications breakdown was fierce, and it is now expected to be among the key issues of an inquiry that will report on police and public safety failures in Nova Scotia by 2022.
Sergeant Andrew Joyce, the RCMP spokesman for Nova Scotia, said his division can still only issue alerts through the province’s EMO and that the Mounties there do "not have direct access to the National Public Alerting System.”
But he added that the Nova Scotia Mounties are having “discussions with provincial government and policing partners about the issuance of emergency alerts related to police activity.” Susan Mader-Zinck, a spokeswoman for Nova Scotia’s EMO, said "this work remains ongoing.”
Neither the Mounties nor the EMO in Nova Scotia would provide a timeline.
Among the other RCMP jurisdictions reached by The Globe last week, only New Brunswick said alerting changes have been implemented. The Alberta RCMP said changes are coming; officers there will “be able to initiate [alerts] on their own without having to go through the province,” spokesman Fraser Logan said, again without offering a specific timeline.
The Mounties see the inability to issue alerts independently as a problem. RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki is said to want powers similar to those that Ontario recently granted to the Ontario Provincial Police, according to a briefing note sent to Public Safety Minister Bill Blair in June, which was obtained by The Globe under the Access to Information Act.
“The OPP has direct access to the system so as to prevent duplication/confusion,” RCMP Assistant Commissioner Dennis Daley wrote. “This is the model our commissioner would like to see in our [provinces and territories] as well.”
The Mounties serve as provincial and territorial police forces everywhere in Canada except Ontario and Quebec. They also serve as municipal forces in 150 jurisdictions, including many cities in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
The force says it is working on a national operational policy to provide its officers with guidance on alerting, but their level of access has to be worked out between each province and its RCMP division.
“These decisions are not made by RCMP national headquarters,” said spokeswoman Corporal Caroline Duval.
The New Brunswick wing of the RCMP – known as J Division – has had the ability to send out alerts on behalf of all police forces in that province since late summer, making it the first RCMP division “to get complete access,” said Inspector Andrea Gallant.
She added that her division can send “critical incident” alerts, explaining that “an active shooter incident would be a good example of that.”
The briefing note to Mr. Blair, who oversees the Mounties, was prepared ahead of a “meet and greet” with executives from Pelmorex Corp., the cable TV company that manages The Weather Network. Since 2009 it has also funded and presided over the National Public Alerting System’s technical infrastructure.
The note encouraged Mr. Blair to discuss the fallout from the Nova Scotia shootings with Pelmorex; he was urged to convey that Public Safety Canada officials “have been working with the RCMP to support their efforts as they advance discussions with provincial and territorial emergency management organizations.”
Assistant deputy minister Patrick Tanguy suggested that Mr. Blair’s messaging needed to be “beefed up” to relay Ottawa’s broader interests, suggesting that other federal agencies may want access to the alerting system. “Do we want to formalize the role of the federal government as an active and permanent user?” he wrote.
At the time, Environment Canada was the only federal agency known to issue alerts.
However, records reveal that four days before the Nova Scotia massacre, Public Safety Canada was granted temporary authority to issue COVID-19 alerts. That power has since lapsed.
“A temporary contractual agreement was put in place with Pelmorex on April 14 and expired on Oct. 15,” said Public Safety Canada spokeswoman Zarah Malik. She said the department never used the power – and could not have done so on the RCMP’s behalf during the Nova Scotia massacre. “Provincial and territorial emergency management organizations determine if and when the public needs to be warned of an imminent threat to life,” she said.
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