Nova Scotia

RCMP claims that emergency alerts cause public panic are unfounded: N.S. inquiry

Experts on emergency alert systems said RCMP concerns about sparking public panic with alerts broadcast over radio, television and smartphones are unfounded, provided they give clear direction on how to react.

'We have not seen mass panic in response of utilization of the system,' says head of N.S. EMO

The Mass Casualty Commission began public hearings on Feb. 22, 2022. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

Fears that the public would panic if they receive alerts during dangerous situations are more myth than reality, experts on emergency alert systems said Thursday at the public inquiry investigating Nova Scotia's mass shooting.

RCMP officers have told the inquiry that had police issued a public alert about a killer driving a replica patrol car, it would have caused a "frantic panic" among the public and put officers in danger. RCMP have also suggested 911 operators could have been overwhelmed by callers seeking information about the killings on April 18-19, 2020.

Instead, the force issued Twitter messages about the emergency to limited audiences. The messages didn't include information that the gunman was driving a replica police car until 10:17 a.m. on April 19, 2020 — near the end of the 13-hour rampage.

This tweet, posted at 11:32 p.m. AT was the only public communication Nova Scotia RCMP issued about the mass shooting on April 18, 2020. The next update wouldn't be until the following morning. (CBC)

Roundtable discussion

Family members of the killer's victims have said that lives could have been saved had people been notified earlier. The killer had evaded police over two days while driving a replica RCMP cruiser.

During a roundtable discussion on Thursday, several participants said worries about the public panicking over Alert Ready messages broadcast over radio, television and smartphones are unfounded, provided the alerts give clear direction on how to react.

Paul Mason, the head of Nova Scotia's Emergency Management Office, said that since the mass shooting of 22 people in April 2020, there have been 12 uses of the Alert Ready system for events involving a police response.

"We have not seen mass panic in response of utilization of the system," he said.

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)

Cheryl McNeil, a consultant and a former employee of the Toronto police, referred to the theory as the "panic myth."

"As long as alerts are clear, concisely stated and provide direction, I don't see how panic can be an expected outcome of advising the public of information they need to know," she said.

As well, Jennifer Jesty, the manager of emergency planning with the Union of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq, said residents of Cape Breton's Mi'kmaq communities have come to expect the local alerts generated by her office — and they become anxious when they're not being informed.

"It's getting to the point now that if there's something transpiring in the community, people are going on social media and asking, 'Where is the alert?"' Jesty said.

Inquiry continues

The inquiry recently released documents that included an interview during which Mason confirmed that the Mounties hadn't considered using the Alert Ready system until his organization suggested it, near the end of the 13-hour rampage.

Mason has said the Mounties were well aware of the system's capabilities and that three years earlier, the RCMP rejected an offer by the Emergency Management Office for the police force to assume responsibility for issuing alerts on its own. The national Alert Ready system has been in place since 2015.

Dave MacNeil, chief of police in Truro, N.S., said in an interview with the inquiry last year that shortly after the mass shooting, the RCMP commander in Nova Scotia, assistant commissioner Lee Bergerman, organized a conference call during which she put forward "a narrative" to municipal police chiefs, suggesting the existing Alert Ready system "doesn't work" for law enforcement situations.

MacNeil said he and other chiefs made clear they were "not going to be adopting that narrative," or the view "it'll overload the 911 system because people get information and call in."

The Mounties' position eventually shifted in the months following the mass shooting.

On April 30, 2021, Bergerman signed an agreement authorizing the Mounties to issue their own alerts through the Alert Ready system.