Nova Scotia

Emergency alert system not often used, N.S. mass shooting report finds

An expert report into Canada’s emergency alert system has found it has only been used on a limited basis and can be complicated to access.

Report commissioned by inquiry finds 'lack of comprehensive and formal doctrine and training'

Police block the highway in Debert, N.S., on April 19, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

An expert report into Canada's emergency alert system has found it has only been used on a limited basis and can be complicated to access.

The report was commissioned by the inquiry examining the murders of 22 people in April 2020 during a 13-hour rampage by a gunman travelling through several northern and central Nova Scotia communities. 

There has been a great deal of debate about why RCMP did not use the emergency alert system, which would have sent an alert directly to radios, televisions and LTE-connected cellphones, to warn people about the gunman. He was driving a replica police car and some of his victims included strangers he encountered.

Families of some of the victims have said if there had been such a warning, their family members would not have been out on the roads the morning of April 19, 2020, and would not have fallen victim to the gunman.

The expert report, prepared by Landsdowne Technologies, found that with the exception of Amber Alerts for missing children, police forces were not on the list of approved authorities that could issue emergency alerts.

In Nova Scotia, for instance, police would instead have had to engage authorities at Nova Scotia's Emergency Measures Organization to do so.

The RCMP did in fact notify the Nova Scotia government that it wanted to send out an emergency alert, but that happened only five minutes before police shot the gunman at a gas station in Enfield, N.S. The alert was never issued.

Twenty-two people died on April 18 and 19, 2020. Top row from left: Gina Goulet, Dawn Gulenchyn, Jolene Oliver, Frank Gulenchyn, Sean McLeod, Alanna Jenkins. Second row: John Zahl, Lisa McCully, Joey Webber, Heidi Stevenson, Heather O'Brien and Jamie Blair. Third row from top: Kristen Beaton, Lillian Campbell, Joanne Thomas, Peter Bond, Tom Bagley and Greg Blair. Bottom row: Emily Tuck, Joy Bond, Corrie Ellison and Aaron Tuck. (CBC)

The Landsdowne report also found there "is currently a lack of comprehensive and formal doctrine and training to guide emergency management response. As a result, each jurisdiction has developed and/or adopted their own respective response models; and Emergency Management terms, tools, and practices are not standardized across Canada."

However, the system in Nova Scotia has now been changed. Last July, the province adjusted the rules to give the RCMP and Halifax Regional Police direct access to the Alert Ready system, which is administered jointly by the federal and provincial governments. A spokesperson for the province said the same access is available to other police forces if they chose.

From April 2020 to July of last year, the alert system was used 12 times in Nova Scotia, according to provincial figures. Nine of those were police-related events.

Earlier this month, RCMP used the alert system to warn people of an active shooter situation in North and East Preston, two communities outside Halifax. Two people were taken into custody, but subsequently released without being charged.

The gunman was shot and killed by police at this gas station in Enfield, N.S. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

However, in the April 2020 shootings, RCMP struggled with what information to release, and when. Part of the problem is that they didn't know exactly what they were dealing with.

Sgt. Brian Rehill was the RCMP's risk manager in the early hours of the crisis. His primary responsibility was to make sure that officers responding to the 911 calls were safe.

He told the commission in an interview in January of this year that when he went off duty early on the morning of April 19, 2020, it still wasn't clear the gunman was driving an authentic-looking police cruiser. 

"Had he pulled me over on the way home, I would have stopped for him," Rehill said. "He probably would have executed me because I would have just sort of thought he was one of the guys."

Rehill said for some time afterwards he suffered panic and anxiety at the sight of some police cars, particularly unmarked ones. He told the commission he's been off work since September 2020.

Rehill described a system where three people above him in the command chain had the authority to request an alert. One of those was Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday, who has since retired from the RCMP.

Heather O'Brien, left, and Kristen Beaton both worked for the Victorian Order of Nurses and were victims of the mass shooting in Nova Scotia. (GoFundMe/The Canadian Press/GoFundMe/The Canadian Press)

In his interview with the commission, Halliday expressed some reluctance about how much information to release.

"None of us had ever had any experience with sending a message like this out to the public," he said.

Halliday had a conversation with one of the RCMP's civilian communications officers about releasing a photograph of the gunman's replica car.

"There's 100 police cars on the road," Halliday told the commission. "And you know, everybody who sees a police car starts calling 911, then the critical information that we ended up with that we needed to ultimately end up getting the suspect, we would never have gotten."

At 9:08 a.m. on April 19, Sgt. Al Carroll, a district commander with the RCMP, sent an email to Sgt. Bruce Briers, who had replaced Rehill as the risk manager. The email read in part: "Thought was given to give release about vehicle, but decision was made not to."

Police only released information about the replica vehicle, including a photo, via Twitter at 10:17 a.m.

About 15 minutes earlier, the gunman had shot and killed Heather O'Brien and Kristen Beaton, strangers he encountered along a highway in Debert, N.S.

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