Documents released by the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC) shed new light on why a public alert was not issued by the province’s Emergency Measures Office (EMO) during the mass murders of April 18/19, 2020.
Although Nova Scotia had been part of federal alerting system since 2010, the rules around when and how to issue a warning to the public were too slow and too cumbersome to be of much help during the mass murders, which began when 13 people were killed in Portapique Saturday night, April 18, 2020, and continued on the next day as nine more people were killed over a 100-kilometre stretch across the middle of the province.
In fact, the gunman was shot and killed before the EMO decision-tree could sign off on the wording of a message from the RCMP warning people to be on the lookout for a killer possibly dressed as a police officer driving a replica police vehicle.
The RCMP had tweeted out that information at 10:21am Sunday after the gunman had killed half a dozen more victims in Wentworth and Debert. An EMO official called to see if they might assist. Had the RCMP contacted EMO officials, an alert could have been much more widely broadcast to everyone who owned a cellphone.
In theory, that is accurate. In reality, the RCMP and EMO operated in separate silos and the RCMP would have had to have reached out to EMO much earlier in the day.
The history of the alert system
As the latest document issued by the Mass Casualty Commission makes clear, the Alert Ready system grew out of a desire to warn the public about impending storms, floods, fires, and natural disasters — not violent crime.
In 2010, the company that owns The Weather Network was tasked by the federal government to establish and operate Alert Ready. The company, Pelmorex, works with Emergency Measures Offices in each province that are responsible to issue the alerts. EMO works with cable, TV, radio stations, and wireless communication providers that are obligated under their licensing to broadcast the messages.
As early as Jan. 4, 2012, RCMP Staff-Sergeant Mark Furey wrote a briefing note that recommended that police have better access to the alert system. “Managed properly,” wrote Furey, “the availability and application of [the alert system to police] could/would be considered an asset to front line police service providers, in response to emergency situations (i.e. forest fires, floods, meteorological events, etc.”
After his career with the RCMP, Furey went on to become the provincial Minister of Justice, a position he held during the mass murders.
In 2014, Pelmorex, expanded the list of events worthy of a public safety message to include Amber Alerts (in cases of child abductions) and “civil emergencies.” The latter were defined as “human activities resulting in the disrupting of services or requiring varying levels of support, law enforcement, or attention.” At that time, “active shooter” was not considered a good reason to activate the alert system because “those were tactical limited localized events,” Paul Mason, the executive director of the EMO in Nova Scotia told MCC investigators earlier this year.
But in June 2016, Nova Scotia EMO officials offered to train officers with the Cape Breton Regional Police, Halifax Regional Police, and Nova Scotia RCMP in the use of the Alert Ready software system. This would allow police forces that were staffed 24/7 to issue public safety alerts on their own without having to contact and rely on EMO offices that are not staffed around the clock.
In a PowerPoint presentation before the police chiefs, Mason specifically mentioned “active shooter” as a reason why the police forces should have that direct access to the Alert Ready system.
According to a memo subsequently written by Mason, “the offer was not accepted by any of these police services. The police services confirmed they would continue the existing practice of requesting an alert from the EMO if they determined that an alert would assist in their response to an event.”
Development of the Alert Ready system moved slowly.
In Nova Scotia, the first time an actual alert and not a test message was sent to cellphone users was about the emergence of COVID-19, issued on April 10, 2020, just days before the mass tragedy, and that alert was not issued during the heat of the moment.
In 2020, alerts issued by EMO required someone to fact-check the content of the message before seeking approval from a senior manager with EMO to authorize the alert. If the request came in after hours or on the weekend, someone had to go into the EMO’s Provincial Coordination Centre to send out the alert.
By April 18/19, 2020, no police force in Nova Scotia had ever called EMO to request an alert be issued.
Bible Hill Staff-Sergeant Al Carroll told investigators with the MCC he didn’t know about the system at all. RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell stated no police force in Canada had ever used the Alert Ready system prior to Portapique.
Since the tragedy, the RCMP in Nova Scotia and the Halifax Regional Police have both signed up for the training and issued a handful of alerts to warn people of active shooting situations in Tantallon and the Prestons, as well as an escaped prisoner in the Thorburn area of Pictou County.
The Tantallon warning — which came just a few weeks after the Portapique horror show — turned out to be a false alarm that precipitated a flood of calls to 911 which overwhelmed the communications system. Everyone was jumpy.
Since the mass murders, Nova Scotia’s Emergency Measures Organization has revamped some of its procedures and policies. Since last August, alerts are now sent out from EMO’s Dispatch Office in Shubenacadie, which works around the clock. If there is a request for an alert to be broadcast and the appropriate senior manager is not available, EMO now has a chain of designated employees with the authority to issue the Alert.
That’s somewhat reassuring considering gun violence and natural disasters show no sign of slowing down in the immediate future.