Parliament Hill shooting responders hit with communications problems as cellphone networks jammed

Internal documents show Ottawa officials were concerned about how a spike in cellphone traffic immediately following the Oct. 22 Parliament Hill shootings could have affected the ability of emergency personnel to respond.

Problem could potentially affect emergency responders, post-mortem suggests

A picture of the Conservative Party caucus room barricaded with chairs was tweeted by MP Nina Grewal shortly after the shooting began on Parliament Hill. Newly disclosed documents show severe communications problems hit emergency personnel as thousands of nervous public servants tried to contact families and others when police locked down core buildings in the capital for hours. (MP Nina Grewal/Reuters)

The Oct. 22 shootings on Parliament Hill jammed Ottawa's cellular and internet networks at a time when the federal government was switching from landlines to cheaper cellphone service.

Newly disclosed documents show severe communications problems hit emergency personnel as thousands of nervous public servants tried to contact families and others when police locked down core buildings in the capital for hours.

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau fatally shot Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was on sentry duty at the National War Memorial, before shooting his way into Centre Block on Parliament Hill, where he was shot and killed shortly after 10 a.m.

Warning messages were issued that day by the Treasury Board, Industry Canada and Shared Services Canada, among others, as it became clear the local wireless network was clogged, potentially impeding police and others.

"Our mobile service providers are experiencing network congestion and therefore ask that you inform your employees to refrain from using their mobile devices unless for emergency situations," said one urgent email widely distributed in the afternoon.

"We also would ask that you seek your employees' collaboration in avoiding use of the internet and email for non-essential work."

Another widely disseminated email from Shared Services Canada, flagged Wireless Network Congestion, said "At this time, there is no estimated time for resolution. Industry Canada strongly recommends to federal employees to avoid all non-essential wireless calls during the emergency event unfolding in Ottawa."

Cites network congestion

The issue was significant enough that officials with Public Safety and Shared Services Canada met twice in the weeks following the shootings "to discuss the resiliency of current communications especially as it pertains to such incidents similar to Oct. 22."

"The purpose of the discussions was to highlight how the planned transition from Centrex (landlines) to VoIP (or to mobile devices) [several words blanked out] between the federal operations centres during a crisis.”

Heavily censored documents, including an after-action analysis for the Government Operations Centre, were obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

Minutes of a Nov. 13 post-incident meeting refer repeatedly to communications overload.

Our [cellphone] suppliers are aware of the situation.- Services Canada spokeswoman

"Alternate forms of communicating need to be explored, e.g., BBMs, Pop up msgs, Tele-source, etc.," says one comment. "Text messaging caused as much saturation as voice communications."

Shared Services Canada is currently ditching thousands of federal  landlines, or Centrex lines, in favour of cellular phones and VoIP lines that rely on the internet for transmission. As of December 2014, some 11,301 cellphones had replaced desk phones, while another 37,719 landlines were converted to VoIP. Both cell service and VoIP can be vulnerable to sudden spikes in network usage, often triggered by an emergency.

Annual savings from the migration away from landlines are expected to hit about $29 million this year.

A spokeswoman for Shared Services Canada said the department is working with its service providers to avoid congestion problems in the future.

"Our suppliers are aware of the situation," Stephanie Richardson said in an email.

She added that emergency officials can still use other communication methods if cell or VoIP systems become clogged.

"Emergency officials and emergency management organizations have access to alternate methods of communications at all times, including VoIP, mobile and traditional telephone service."

Alternates available

"If one telephone carrier is overwhelmed with calls beyond its engineered capacity, they can continue performing their work by using alternate technologies."

The after-action report also noted that senior emergency leaders in the government were "off site" at the time of the shootings, and therefore not able to work inside the Government Operations Centre.

"This fact coupled with the [several words blanked out] created inefficient and ineffective communication with the decision makers," suggesting the jammed communications affected decision-making.

Rogers is the federal government's primary supplier of wireless services, with Bell Canada and Telus the secondary and tertiary suppliers wherever Rogers is unable to provide the required service.

CBC News has previously reported on the differing radio frequencies used by RCMP officers in the Parliament Hill precinct and by the separate security force in charge of the inside of the Parliament buildings. The RCMP has since been placed in charge of a project to unify and co-ordinate both services.

Handout photo shows RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson briefing Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the Oct. 22 shootings at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. An internal report obtained by CBC News suggests swamped cell-phone networks during the crisis posed a risk to emergency communications. (PMO/Associated Press)
The after-action report from the Government Operations Centre, which co-ordinates information and responses to federal emergencies, also found a raft of other problems at the facility, whose location the government will not disclose. Including:
  • Food was in short supply through the long hours of the crisis because the facility was locked down. Public Safety "is examining options to ensure that there is a suitable supply of food on site," said spokesperson Zarah Malik.
  • The centre had no IT professionals on site to deal with any equipment breakdowns. "As part of our process of continuous improvement, the Public Safety chief information officer is addressing the issue of IT staff support to the Government Operations Centre," said spokeswoman Josee Sirois.

CBC News previously reported that the Government Operations Centre issued a series of situation reports on Oct. 22 that were out of touch with police statements. Ottawa city police told the public that no threat existed in the downtown core, for example, just as the centre issued an update saying as many as five assailants remained on the loose.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter