Nova Scotia

Changes needed to national emergency alert system, says N.S. Mountie

A high-ranking RCMP officer who has helped build the Mounties' policies for using emergency alerts in Nova Scotia says it's become a key tool since the mass shooting in April 2020, but major changes are needed provincially and federally to keep citizens and police safe when it's used.

Supt. Dustine Rodier testified before the inquiry into the N.S. mass shooting Tuesday

RCMP Supt. Dustine Rodier provides testimony regarding the Alert Ready system at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18/19, 2020, in Truro, N.S. on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. The gunman, dressed as an RCMP officer and driving a replica police cruiser, murdered 22 people. ( THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan)

A high-ranking RCMP officer who has helped build the Mounties' policies for using emergency alerts in Nova Scotia says it's become a key tool since the mass shooting in April 2020, but major changes are needed provincially and federally to keep citizens and police safe when it's used.

Supt. Dustine Rodier, who was the officer in charge of the Operational Communications Centre (OCC) in Bible Hill at the time of the mass shooting across rural Nova Scotia, testified Tuesday what would happen if a similar situation took place.

"I can certainly tell you, with the efforts that we've made over the past two years, the amount of work we've done, the standard operating procedures, the policies … Alert Ready would be considered," Rodier told the Mass Casualty Commission hearing in Truro, N.S.

"We know about it now, we know what happens, we know how it works. Every time we use it we learn something new, and we share that."

The inquiry has heard the OCC is where 911 call takers and dispatchers for RCMP work, and where the RCMP risk manager is stationed. 

On the night of April 18, 2020, the risk manager was in charge of the immediate response to the shooting that began in Portapique where a gunman in a mock RCMP cruiser killed neighbours and set homes ablaze before fleeing the community via a back dirt road.

The issue of why police did not send an emergency alert about the active shooter, especially on the morning of April 19 when the gunman began killing again, has long been a major issue for victims' families and the public.

But multiple staff and officers, including Rodier and OCC commander Glenn Byrne, have said they had no idea the national Alert Ready system that is used for major weather events or Amber Alerts could also be used for policing.

"If you had said to me on April 19, 'What's Alert Ready?' I wouldn't have been able to answer you," Rodier said.

Public called for alert on April 19

Records released by the inquiry this week show that residents were responding to the RCMP Twitter and Facebook posts with increasingly urgent calls to issue an emergency alert. 

"The emergency response system should be activated to warn all people not to pull over for this vehicle," wrote one Twitter user in response to the RCMP's 10:17 a.m. post on April 19 about the replica police cruiser.

"I don't know anyone who even has Twitter, is that how you get info out? What happened to phone alerts?" asked a Facebook user in response to a post on the RCMP Facebook page at 10:26 a.m. describing an active shooter investigation in Portapique.

RCMP managers and senior officers have uniformly said that they were not aware that the Alert Ready system was an option. Several have said it would have been a bad move, suggesting the 911 system would have been overwhelmed by panicked residents.

At the time of the massacre, all Nova Scotia police agencies had to send a request for an alert and the accompanying text to the provincial Emergency Management Office (EMO).

Rodier said while she heard on the morning of April 19 that EMO was offering to send an alert, she suggested they go through strategic communications as they would be the best people to craft the right message. Soon after, however, the gunman was killed by police and the alert was never sent.

Rodier not aware of alert options for police

Although various lawyers brought up documents and briefing notes showing the RCMP had attended meetings with the provincial EMO about alerting, Rodier said the Mounties believed the system could not be used for policing matters.

EMO offered the RCMP and regional police forces in Halifax and Cape Breton direct use of the alert system during meetings in 2016 and 2017, but they declined, EMO executive director Paul Mason has told the inquiry.

The inquiry has also heard that an EMO staff member met with an RCMP member about how to use Amber Alerts just weeks before the rampage and brought up the fact it could be used for other crisis events.

But Rodier said that meeting was for a working group including Halifax Regional Police and the provincial Justice Department regarding Amber Alerts only — and she wasn't briefed on any broader uses of the system. In fact, she said she had "no idea it was the same platform."

After the mass shooting, Rodier said the RCMP immediately began researching how emergency alerts could be used by police, and the force was ready and willing to accept training and equipment from EMO that would give them direct access by the summer of 2020.

RCMP direct access blocked: Rodier

It wasn't until the winter of 2021, after the provincial government said publicly that the RCMP had refused direct access, that Rodier said things changed. At that point, she said Chief Supt. Chris Leather spoke out to say the force was actually welcoming access, and "then we got the green light."

Multiple people, including Rodier, Byrne and OCC risk managers, have since been trained on the alert system, she said. They created policies on how and when it should be used, and an independent risk analysis was completed.

"It's not just a matter of hitting the button and hoping for the best. The use of Alert Ready has impacts, far-reaching impacts," Rodier said.

As of this April, Rodier said the RCMP's national critical incident commander training course has been updated to include Alert Ready, and if a similar situation to Portapique were to happen again, a critical incident commander handling the response could make the call for an alert.

In the past two years, there have been various alerts sent from RCMP or the province, Rodier said, including some that have brought a huge flood of people calling 911. In some cases, they realized that poor cell coverage in rural areas prevented some people from getting the alerts, and they brought that to the province's attention to work on.

The RCMP has put some strategies in place to streamline the alert process and be better prepared, Rodier said, including notifying the officer in charge of the Operational Communications Centre and other nearby police agencies, and having a strategic communications person in the OCC to help craft a message.

An emergency alert regarding the province's stay-at-home order during the COVID-19 pandemic is viewed on a cell phone in eastern Ontario on Jan. 14, 2021. EMO in Nova Scotia was ready to send a public alert during the mass shooting on April 19, 2020, but the request only came minutes before the gunman was killed. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

She said while this is the ideal scenario, an alert can be sent before all these pieces are in place if time is of the essence.

But every time an alert is considered, Rodier said the RCMP will weigh the risks and benefits of using the system. For example, if someone is in a closet hiding from a gunman, she said it would be dangerous to send out the alert which overrides all phone settings and could give them away. An alert could also make a perpetrator act in an unexpected way, putting police at risk, Rodier said.

To address both flaws in the alert system for police, and help avoid a wave of people calling 911 and blocking phone lines, Rodier echoed the points of a recent international alert expert on overhauling the system to follow Australia's success.

She said the federal government should take full control of how the software is used in Canada's Alert Ready system.

"When it comes to public safety, it has to be the focus," Rodier said.

Pelmorex currently operates the software. The private company is one of many partners, including government and public safety officials, that establishes policies on the utilisation of the Alert Ready system and how to use the software.

On the provincial side, Rodier said EMO should lead a major public awareness campaign about police use of emergency alerts through social media ads, videos and more to get the message across that calling 911 is the worst thing one could do.

She said the RCMP is now part of a working group comprising EMO, the Nova Scotia Chiefs of Police Association and the province's Justice Department that has come up with 23 recommendations for the provincial government, including such an awareness campaign.

Although Rodier said this "critically important" issue hasn't moved forward yet, she said she's hoping it does soon.

OCC changes

Rodier also outlined major changes to the OCC that have taken place over the past two years, including relocating to the RCMP headquarters in Dartmouth in 2021.

The new setup is "night and day" compared to the old one, Rodier said, where both call takers and dispatchers are in a large open space and risk managers are up on a raised platform in the middle so they can see and hear everything.

The inquiry has heard that key pieces of information called in from witnesses within the first hour of the shooting didn't make it to commanding officers, including that Andrew and Kate MacDonald had been shot at by the gunman and Const. Vicki Colford radioed that there might be a back way out of Portapique.

Rodier said the new OCC workstations have stoplights, so if someone is taking an important call, they turn the light red to alert supervisors that something significant is coming in.

There is also now a critical incident room off the main part of the OCC with all the technology, radios and mapping equipment of the centre, Rodier said. It's always ready, and can either act as a command post or support one that's set up in a different area.

Risk managers also know they can call in a second risk manager to help them in major incidents, she said, which did happen eventually during the mass shooting response, but Rodier said hadn't been done before.

Rodier says back road broadcast likely not heard

The Colford broadcast was also brought up by lawyer Joshua Bryson, who represents the family of victims Joy and Peter Bond.

Police believe the gunman escaped from Portapique on a private road along a blueberry field about 20 minutes after the first officers arrived at the entrance to the rural subdivision.

Bryson asked Rodier about how to ensure messages like Colford's get to the right decision-makers, but Rodier asked in return whether a dispatcher responded to Colford.

"It does matter because that would tell me that if a member says something on the air, and … it's not acknowledged — if it was me, I would go back on the air and repeat it or make sure the dispatcher heard me," Rodier said.

"If that response wasn't there, then perhaps that transmission didn't come through or wasn't heard."

The radio call logs released by the inquiry show a dispatcher did not respond to Colford, but she addressed her message to Millbrook RCMP colleagues approaching the scene in Portapique and not dispatch.

Usually, Rodier said any vital information heard by the dispatcher over police radio would be passed directly to the risk manager or whoever needed the update.

But Staff Sgt. Brian Rehill told the inquiry last week he never heard Colford's broadcast.

With files from Ruth Davenport