May 11, 2022

MCC Day 21 – Emergency Alert Advice From British Expert

After hearing yesterday about the capabilities of our emergency alert system, and the way it is organized and used in Nova Scotia, today we heard from an international expert on public safety on how such alerts are used in Australia and the UK. Michael Hallowes is currently a private consultant on public alerts, who lead the development of the emergency alert system in Australia, after a career as a police officer in England. He testified today about his efforts to advise Canadian governments on emergency alert system developments, and his views on the quality of our public alert system.

A legal nugget I noticed (which is just an observation, not a criticism) happened during Mr. Hallowes’ introduction. One of the first things you may have noticed if you were watching the proceedings was that MCC lawyer Rachael Young sought to have the Commissioners accept that Mr. Hallowes is qualified as an “expert” in the field of emergency alert systems. There is a legal purpose to such an exercise, beyond the simple desire to introduce a witness and provide some background before they delve into the substance of their evidence.

An ”expert” is someone who is not only able to say what they have done and observed, but who is also able to give their opinion on a topic. For regular witnesses, they are limited to speaking about what they saw and did, or giving their opinion on common daily observations such as speed or degree of intoxication. This distinction is more relevant in criminal and civil trials, where the rules of evidence are more strictly enforced, so the relatively cavalier manner in which the expertise was accepted by the Commissioners today is not the normal procedure. Typically, the lawyer for the other party involved would question the potential expert’s qualifications in order to narrow the scope of the topics over which the witness can offer their opinion. Today, there was none of that.

Mr. Hallowes is well positioned to give advice on emergency alerts. He lead the design of the Australian system, has given high level advice in England, and is very familiar with the Canadian system. He was also able to draw on examples in Norway and Iceland during his remarks.

He was quite critical of the Canadian model as it was designed, and as it operates, and provided valuable insight into how a better system might be built. First of all, he described how the Canadian system being built and owned by a private company was unique, and problematic. It seems to have resulted in a situation where only phones linked to a 4G network, which means newer versions of phones and excludes up to 65% of users, are able to receive alerts. In Australia, they mandated that phones that can connect to anything 3G and better would receive the alerts, which thereby includes 95% of cell phones.

We heard from Paul Mason, the NS Emergency Management Office Executive Director, that the police here had refused to accept direct access to the Alert Ready system. By contract, in Australia, all organizations in emergency services that may have a responsibility for public safety are mandated to have direct access to use the system. This would quite prominently include the police.

The very important concept of “subsidiarity” was discussed by Mr. Hallowes as well. This means that the lowest possible ranking front-line responder should have the ability and authority to issue an alert, or direct that an alert be issued. That would have meant that Cst. Stuart Beselt would have had the authority to issue an emergency alert shortly after 11pm on April 18, 2020, when it occurred to him to mention it on the police radio.

Mr. Hallowes has worked with governments to work the response time, that is, the time between the decision to issue an alert and the alert going out, to eight minutes. The response time is incredibly important, which is why you need to delegate authority down as low as possible. He said that timeliness is more important that perfect accuracy, and that so long as incorrect information is corrected people will trust the system and act responsibly when notified of an emergency.

Mr. Hallowes will be back with the MCC tomorrow as part of a panel discussion on emergency alerts. There are two panels planned, one on alert systems, and one on ‘planning for accessibility