Nova Scotia

Emergency alert service launched in areas affected by mass shooting, missing boy

Truro and Colchester County have been deeply affected by recent tragedies, including a mass shooting and a missing boy. In both cases, how emergency alerts were used has been questioned.

'Minutes were crucial' in events that highlight need for an 'efficient' response, says Truro mayor

A sample of an active shooter alert on the emergency notification system purchased by the town of Truro and Colchester County. (Everbridge)

After a pair of recent tragedies — a mass shooting and the disappearance of a little boy — the town of Truro and the Municipality of Colchester County are teaming up to alert residents to future emergencies. 

Those events have shone a light on emergency alerts, raising questions about the policies and the timeliness of the provincial system. 

Launched a week ago, Alert Truro Colchester is a notification service that sends texts, emails or voice calls.

For app users, location-specific alerts go to devices. Alerts can cover emergencies such as a missing child or a shooter on the loose.

"With Portapique, for example, then followed by the young boy, Dylan Ehler," the need for urgent alerts has been tragically underscored, said Bill Mills, Truro's mayor.

"Minutes were crucial," he said.

The recent cases of a mass shooter and a missing boy both raised issues concerning the use of emergency alerts. (Craig Paisley/CBC/Town of Truro/Facebook)

In the case of a mass shooter's 13-hour rampage in April starting in Portapique in Colchester County to Enfield, on the edge of Halifax, RCMP used Twitter to communicate information about his whereabouts. Police were in the process of crafting an emergency message for the provincial system when the shooter was gunned down.

When Ehler went missing in May, a provincial Amber Alert was not issued because foul play was not suspected.

Instead, a Truro-area alert from the Emergency Management Office asked people to keep an eye out for the missing child.

Bill Mills says he hopes the emergency alert service will 'catch on' with residents. (Robert Short/CBC)

Discussions started a year ago with talk about how to notify residents about changes to everyday services, such as garbage collection. It led to the purchase of the $18,000 communication system.

In the case of emergencies, Mills said a message from police or fire would go to the town's communications official with the new system, and an alert would be pushed in consultation with the chief administrative officer.

It's free to residents who opt in. There are 18,000 people living in Truro, and 38,400 in the county.

Mills said having an "efficient" tool for communicating local needs has led people to wonder what would have happened if the gunman, who was close to the town, had stopped there that morning.

"If they had that alert service at that time, and we had the information and it was posted, certainly a lot of people would've changed their plan to go shopping," he said.

Halifax privacy lawyer David Fraser, who's been critical of the RCMP communication strategy in the mass shooting, said it's a smart move to increase the sharing of critical information to as many people as possible. 

Privacy lawyer David Fraser says the agreement to hand over information to police without a warrant makes him nervous. (CBC)

While providing a cell number or email address is necessary and reasonable for communication, he said, he's concerned about using the app feature.

Fraser said the privacy agreement from the U.S. service provider, Everbridge, allows for a "tight connection between the municipality and law enforcement."

It makes him nervous that Everbridge does not require a warrant from police to share location information about the app's users.

Where people are travelling, shopping and visiting are "a pretty significant window into our private lives" and "something to be mindful about," he said.

The municipal alert system in Halifax is contracted out to the same company.

Mills said marketing the new service will soon be gearing up and he hopes people will sign up. 

"It's like an insurance policy," he said. "We put it in place, I hope we never have to really use it, but it'll be there when we do need it."

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

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