The RCMP could have had direct access to Canada’s alerting system years before the Nova Scotia mass shooting, but the police force never followed through on the province’s repeated invitations to embrace the system, according to a top emergency official.
Paul Mason, executive director of Nova Scotia’s emergency management office (EMO), testified on Tuesday about failed initiatives to bring the Mounties and other police up to speed on public alerting technology. He said emergency officials had been suggesting for years that law-enforcement agencies take on the job of sending public direct-to-cellphone alerts about active shooters, terrorists and similar threats.
Mr. Mason told the Mass Casualty Commission that when EMO officials learned of the shootings, they reached out to the police to ask if they wanted to issue an alert through new technology. He added that the first time the RCMP said it wanted to relay such a warning was just before the Nova Scotia gunman was shot dead after killing 22 people. “We reached out to them. There were discussions,” he told the commission on Tuesday. But, he said, the RCMP only “expressed an interest in issuing an alert at approximately 11:25 [a.m.] on April 19.”
The gunman’s 13-hour overnight rampage across rural Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19, 2020, ended in a shootout with the RCMP. Earlier that morning, the police force issued its first warnings about the gunman via Twitter. The RCMP has said it was preparing a cellphone alert when the gunman was shot at around 11:30 a.m.
The lack of proper communication with the public during the shootings is one of the central questions for the inquiry, which will make recommendations on how to prevent similar tragedies.
Police and public safety officials faced immediate criticism for not using the system, known as Alert Ready. Nova Scotia signed onto it in 2011, when the technology was capable of interrupting TV and radio broadcasts only. In 2018, it was upgraded across Canada to include direct-to-cellphone warnings.
Provincial EMO officials decide what kinds of alerts are sent out and in what circumstances. The technology has been adopted at varying rates in different regions. Typically, the system is used to notify the public about severe weather. The issue of police access to alerting remains unsettled in many Canadian communities.
Mr. Mason, who has held several positions in the Nova Scotia EMO, said provincial officials had intermittent talks starting in 2012 to encourage police in the province to take the reins on alerting the public to violent threats. “There had been a meeting in 2013 or 2014 with risk managers at RCMP, once again, to discuss whether there was an interest in the platform,” he said. “That didn’t come to fruition.”
In June, 2016, he gave a presentation to the RCMP and the province’s largest municipal police forces. He said the EMO could give them direct access to Alert Ready for “active shooter” scenarios. “We knew cellphone [alerting] was coming. I gave that presentation to them highlighting there could be potential police utilization,” Mr. Mason testified.
He told the commission that he said the 24/7 nature of police services makes them better equipped to send such warnings than civil servants. Police “had an interest in the platform but were not interested in direct access at that time,” Mr. Mason testified. (Records released by the mass-casualty commission show that Halifax police responded that they could not resolve training and staffing issues.)
The EMO decided to send out alerts on behalf of police agencies that requested it to do so. A May, 2019, meeting agenda for emergency managers released by the commission shows details were to be developed. “There is a possibility in the future that police will be able to send out alert messages,” it said. “This is something police and NS EMO would need to work on and discuss further.”
Nova Scotia rarely used the Alert Ready system for other kinds of warnings. It issued no alerts in 2019. In April, 2020, it circulated a general warning about COVID-19 as its first alert to citizens’ cellphones.
Later that month, the system stayed silent throughout the gunman’s rampage.
Rodney Legge, the EMO’s technical adviser, testified on Tuesday that he and other officials learned about the crisis through contacts or RCMP social-media warnings about the gunman and his replica police squad car.
“We followed Twitter, waiting for further instructions,” Mr. Legge said. But the Mounties never called him that day, he added.
Days after the massacre, Nova Scotia became the first province to issue an Alert Ready warning about an active shooter threat, in connection with another incident. In 2021, the province’s EMO gave direct alerting access capabilities to large police forces, including the RCMP, in response to requests for it.
Documents released by the inquiry show that in a February interview with commission officials, Mr. Mason wondered why the RCMP did not develop standard operating procedures for alerting.
“Why in the name of God didn’t the RCMP have a SOP for this?” he said.
In that interview, he said the federal government may need to step in to help improve a disjointed system. “That’s the way public alerting is set up, not just in Nova Scotia. It’s right across the country that way.”
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police last year issued a statement saying that police are struggling to navigate the public alert system and “significant governance gaps.”
The RCMP said earlier this year it has developed national protocols on alerting. “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,” RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival said.
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