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The RCMP's case of broken telephone

Police officers direct traffic under a cloud of smoke from a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 6, 2016.

Communications and data issues have plagued the Mounties in recent years, putting both officers and the public at risk. Some RCMP officials are now taking matters into their own hands, Colin Freeze and Carrie Tait report

Fort McMurray RCMP were in the midst of evacuating 90,000 people as last year's massive wildfire chewed through the city when they ran out of radios. On top of that, the radio channel overloaded and the force doesn't have a backup communication system. Officers in the field were co-ordinating traffic, rushing children out of schools, rescuing strays and changing plans on the fly when the flames got too close to the escape routes – all while police were unable to connect with the emergency headquarters.

As the city burned, some evacuees were trapped north of town, evacuation centres across the province were still being assembled and people were stranded on the southbound highway because they ran out of gas. Further, the RCMP and the federal agency designed to support the Mounties were unable to obtain enough functioning cellphones as the operation expanded.

Officials in Ottawa had sent RCMP in Alberta about two dozen phones, but they could not be used immediately. Some phones were dead. Some were locked. Some contained data from their previous users.

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Canada's top cop wasn't happy.

"We are not operating in an environment where otherwise innocuous bureaucratic stumbling is tolerable," RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson wrote in an e-mail to the head of the federal procurement agency as the fire burned out of control.

"Happening all the time and I can't accept the risk."

A police officer looks over a fire-damaged building in the Abasand neighbourhood in Fort McMurray, Alta., on May 9, 2016.

E-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail through an Access to Information request reveal a series of missteps, with RCMP brass sharply chastising federal officials and calling the situation risky and intolerable.

The force had been in this position before, to deadly effect. In 2014, three Mounties were shot and killed during a multiday rampage in Moncton and the RCMP now faces allegations the officers did not have enough equipment to deal with the crisis.

The Horse River Fire in Fort McMurray revealed multiple gaps in the RCMP's communication systems. The failures hampered communications during the crisis and the RCMP say they put the public and the police at risk in other emergencies as well.

Mounties in Fort McMurray are now building their own backup system in the absence of a national strategy. Meanwhile, the RCMP's top leaders continue to clash with Ottawa over the procurement issues that led to the cellphone problem.

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As officials at the highest levels try to smooth out their differences, those on the ground are organizing themselves, said Brian Sauvé, an RCMP sergeant working to unionize the police force.

"Ottawa needs to accept the fact that we're cops and not public servants," he said. Officers need the ability to communicate "24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

Even with a compromised communications system, Fort McMurray's Mounties and other emergency responders safely evacuated the entire city. RCMP in Alberta delivered extra radios, along with supplies such as food and face masks, to officers on the ground in the northern city after the first wave of crisis. At the same time, the provincial RCMP headquarters in Edmonton requested dozens of phones, but it's unclear why.

An RCMP officer wears a gas mask to combat the smoke as he mans a checkpoint on the highway to Fort McMurray, Alberta on Friday, May 6, 2016.

The Mounties have long struggled with getting the right gear to their far-flung officers.

Communications and data issues have compounded in recent years owing to the RCMP's fraught relationship with Shared Services Canada, the information-technology agency created in 2011 to buy communications and computer gear for all federal government bodies.

Police officials, however, argue they need latitude to get their own specialized gear without running plans through Ottawa first.

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Commissioner Paulson argued in his e-mail that Fort McMurray serves as an example of why the current procurement system does not work.

First, RCMP and Shared Services agreed the situation was so urgent Mounties in Edmonton should immediately buy phones from Rogers and Bell in Edmonton.

But then, after multiple changes to the plan, Shared Services offered to courier dozens of cellphones from Ottawa.

The phones in the first shipment had so many problems – locked, dead or otherwise unusable – they could not immediately be sent to Fort McMurray. Mr. Paulson intervened with his blunt e-mail to the head of Shared Services on May 6, 2016.

"Here is just a taste of why we need out," Commissioner Paulson said, copying a deputy minister.

Shared Services' own review shows it quickly tried to address the crisis. It sent the first shipment of cellular phones on May 4, 2016, arriving the next morning, albeit with problems. Shared Services sent a second shipment May 5. These were configured to RCMP specifications in Edmonton and were then ready to go to Fort McMurray, along with the original batch of phones. The agency subsequently sent another 100 cellphones, as well as wireless hubs, aircards, upgraded Internet connectivity and additional people to Alberta in support of RCMP efforts. (The e-mails do not reveal whether all the equipment was used.)

In this image released by the Alberta RCMP on May 5, 2016, a police officer walks on a road past burned down houses in Fort McMurray, Alta.

The Mounties, in a statement Friday, said: "The RCMP and its partners rely on critical 24/7/365, no-fail, operational IT systems to investigate crimes and protect the public."

It is "critical to the safety of our members because it ensures that we can stay in contact with them when they're responding to calls and track their location during quickly evolving situations."

The procurement and communications problems exacerbated a 2014 crisis that turned deadly.

In that case, a gunman shot dead three RCMP officers in Moncton with an assault rifle, and prosecutors now allege RCMP commanders failed to give their officers enough weaponry and gear to defend themselves.

An internal RCMP review of the Moncton killings concluded police communications were often overloaded, unco-ordinated, absent and confusing. It recommended implementing better radio technology and that every serving RCMP member should be "in possession of a cellular or satellite phone (where available) and police radio while on duty."

As a result, the RCMP is being put on trial under labour-code laws. A new law has been introduced to Parliament that would give federal departments some added flexibility in information-technology procurements through Shared Services Canada.

Meanwhile, Fort McMurray RCMP is trying to build a backup communications system, hoping avoid another communications crisis such as the one that hit as chaos in the city peaked.

Superintendent Lorna Dicks is the head of the RCMP's Fort McMurray detachment and was in command May 3, 2016, when the fire forced tens of thousands in northern Alberta to flee. That day, she issued a mandatory overtime order for every available officer. In turn, 136 RCMP members clocked in. That created the radio dilemma.

"There's no police agency out there that is built to have everybody on staff [deployed] at the same time," Supt. Dicks said in an interview this week.

And the RCMP's most valuable tool when it comes to managing a crisis, Supt. Dicks said, is an effective communications network.

RCMP Inspector Kevin Kunetzki updates the media on the highway to Fort McMurray, Alta., on Saturday, May 7, 2016.

"Any major event that has ever happened – it always comes down to communication and getting that information out as fast as you possibly can," she said.

More radios are not the answer. They cost about $10,000 each, so it is not feasible for detachments to have enough for every member of the force at all times, rather than enough to outfit officers on duty on routine days, Supt. Dicks said. Further, extra radios are not helpful when the channels are clogged or when trying to reach off-duty members in a crisis.

Now, the detachment is compiling a database of its members' contact information: work cell numbers; personal cells; home phones; home e-mail addresses. Supt. Dicks wants to build a network that would allow the detachment to send mass texts to officers' personal cells, serving as backup communications for the radio network.

"We could have kept up with the immediate information flow during the emergency," she said. "During those first few days, keeping your people in the loop and letting them know what was going on as fast as you possibly could – that's key."

Other RCMP detachments have shown interest in her home-grown solution, which will be tested in the coming weeks, Supt. Dicks said.

"A system like this would be extremely beneficial."

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