May 10, 2022

MCC Day 20 – The (Neither) Alert (Nor Quite) Ready System

The focus of today’s proceedings was the structure of the Alert Ready system in Nova Scotia at the time of the mass casualty in April, 2020, and some changes that have been incorporated since then. There were two brief Foundational Document presentations, followed by two witnesses from the NS Emergency Management Office (EMO). Though this was not obvious from the information provided on the MCC website, the presentations were not intended to cover what actually happened (or did not happen) on April 18-19, 2020, but rather simply what was available in terms of emergency alerts.

The first part of the morning was occupied by presentations on the legal framework within which emergency alerts operate, and then the procedures involved in issuing such an alert. Though the presentation from Commission lawyer, Rachel Young, was seemingly designed to make a potentially dry subject even drier, there were some important takeaways that a dedicated listener could glean.

Ms. Young noted that there has been some Charter caselaw about emergency alerts, regarding the duty to warn, or the prohibition against warning only a certain group of people to the exclusion of others. Such scenarios have the potential to violate the right to “life, liberty, and security of the person” under section 7 of the Charter. She also reviewed some of the duties in the NS Emergency Management Act for municipalities to inform the EMO office if they are aware of an emergency.

Paul Mason, the Executive Director of the NS EMO testified in the morning. He has given a statement to the MCC in which he discussed the unfolding events of April 18-19, 2020, and he was asked about those details today. When EMO staff became aware of the shootings through the media coverage, they went in to the office and EMO contacted the RCMP to inquire as to whether they would like to utilize the Alert Ready system.

Mr. Mason noted that in 2016 he presented to the RCMP and Halifax Regional Police about getting direct access to the Alert Ready system. In his view, the police should have that access because, unlike EMO, the police are active 24/7 (EMO follows regular Monday to Friday office hours) and the police have ‘situational awareness’. For some reason which has not been yet established, the police declined direct access at that time. Since 2020, the RCMP and HRP now do have direct access, but there still seems to be too many steps between the emergency happening and an alert being issued.

Some questions were asked of Mr. Mason about the potential for the system to be overwhelmed by callers panicking or making false reports to 911 when an alert gets issued, and he said that has not been the case to date. In other words, citizens can generally be trusted to give accurate information in an emergency.

The protocol in place at the time of the killings in 2020 was for the police to contact EMO to initiate an alert. On the morning of April 19, 2020, however, nothing had been heard from the RCMP, but Mr. Mason ensured that EMO staff were called in just in case an alert was needed. EMO staff had been seeing reports in the media showing that there was an active shooter who was still on the loose. After the photo of the mock cruiser was posted to twitter by the RCMP, EMO started trying to reach the RCMP to work on an alert, but were unable to reach anyone.

This seemed like a promising line of questioning, but it was not explored today. Perhaps that is intended for another time, but it seemed as though it would have made sense to go through those attempts today, when the rest of the Alert Ready evidence was being entered.

In addition, Mr. Mason testified that the RCMP did not have a procedure in place for dealing with the Alert Ready system, which surprised him, and will no doubt surprise many others as well. Such a potentially valuable tool was there to be used, but the RCMP leadership did not recognize the benefits of having it in their toolbox.

I am writing this before the final witness of the day, Rodney Legge, a technical advisor to EMO, testified. I will review his testimony later this evening, and if anything of significance arises, I will include it with my report for tomorrow.