February 11, 2022

The Need for Testimony on Nova Scotia’s Failed Emergency Alert System

We are less than two weeks away from the start of the “public proceedings” portion of the Mass Casualty Commission, and there is still confusion and uncertainty as to what those proceedings will involve. This week, we have heard from a daughter of one of the victims, who still does not know whether she will be testifying, or whether her lawyer will be able to question witnesses.

Darcy Dobson is the daughter of Heather O’Brien, a VON nurse who was killed on the morning of April 19, 2020. Ms. O’Brien was taking her weekly drive to visit her grandchildren when she was killed. Visiting her family by standing in their yards and talking through windows had become a habit of hers as a result of the pandemic restrictions, with the lack of contact necessitated in part by her status as a nurse to vulnerable seniors. Her route took her to the place where another victim, fellow nurse Kristen Beaton, had been pulled over and killed by the gunman while he was disguised as an RCMP officer.

There are two lines of questioning or topics that should be covered through Ms. Dobson’s testimony. One is simply for us to hear about her mother. Ms. O’Brien had eight children and 12 grandchildren, and was said to be the glue that held this large family together. She was a VON nurse who that morning had also called a fellow nurse, offering to do some of her visits. She sounds like a kind and wonderful person.

Having this kind of context on the victims gives the MCC proceedings an emotional weight that helps ensure all participants dedicate their best efforts and energy to finding appropriate answers. Testimony from the Desmond family about their deceased family members provided some of the most powerful and poignant moments of that Inquiry. It is difficult for witnesses to discuss their lost loved ones, but in my observations, talking about them in a formal inquiry setting can also be a cathartic way to process those difficult emotions.

The second reason that it is important to hear from Ms. Dobson is that she (as well as Ms. Beaton’s husband, Nick) can provide context for the key question of why the Alert Ready system was not engaged throughout this active shooter situation.

Ms. Dobson and Mr. Beaton have already described to members of the media how things would have unfolded much differently that morning had there been an alert sent out to members of the public on their phones, as is possible with the Alert Ready system. The failure to do so was identified immediately as an issue, and is considered a major failure of the response to the shootings. It is inconceivable that this would not be addressed by the MCC.

So then, what are we to make of the comments from Ms. Dobson that she does not yet know whether she will be testifying? It is possible that she will testify, but that the MCC is not yet organized to the extent that they can tell witnesses when they can expect to take the stand. Given the delays and long time to prepare, that is either unlikely or independently concerning.

Perhaps the MCC is planning some other forum for “victim profiles”, such as guided roundtables. First of all, I would think such a plan would unduly minimize the importance of hearing about the victims as individuals. Also, if that is the only forum where we hear from Ms. Dobson or Mr. Beaton, then it would effectively move much of the crucial contextual evidence on the key topic of the emergency alert to a secondary stage.

The Alert Ready system was unveiled in April, 2018 by the Federal Government. There were two tests of the system in Nova Scotia in 2018, as announced by the Provincial Emergency Measures Office. The alerts can be sent to any mobile phone in a certain geographical area, and when they are received, they are very difficult to miss or ignore. Instead of emergency alerts, however, all that was provided to the public while the shooter was still active were tweets from the Nova Scotia RCMP twitter account.

I was following the RCMP twitter account, and saw their tweets that morning, but I do not know anyone else among my friends and associates around my part of Guysborough who do, and the same seems to apply in the Colchester area. Global News noted that Statistics Canada says that there are approximately 22,000 homes in Colchester County, of which likely 87%, or 19,000 would have had mobile phones that could receive an emergency alert.

This issue was the subject of wide reporting at the time, and so perhaps people presume it has been addressed, and there is nothing more to review. That is not the case at all. There is still no legislation, regulations, or publicly available protocol documents describing how Alert Ready should be used, or which break down who has what responsibilities. The Alert Ready website still does not even mention “active shooter” among the many instances where the system should be engaged.

There is still every reason to conduct a detailed examination of the emergency alert system in Nova Scotia, so that we have clear protocols and assigned responsibilities. That way, when every second counts, time is not wasted trying to sort out who is in charge, or what justifies an alert. Good people died because the system did not work when it was needed. We need to hear from these witnesses, so that such tragedies do not happen again.