Af­ter N.S. gun ram­page, RCMP con­sid­ers alert sys­tem

Fall­out from Nova Sco­tia mas­sacre

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - ADINA BRESGE

While Moun­ties in Nova Sco­tia are un­der scru­tiny for not is­su­ing an alert as a gun­man ram­paged through ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, there’s noth­ing in the na­tional RCMP hand­book to sug­gest they should have.

In fact, the RCMP says there are cur­rently no coun­try­wide guide­lines for when po­lice should use Canada’s pub­lic warn­ing sys­tem to broad­cast in­for­ma­tion to cell­phones and tele­vi­sion screens.

In the wake of the mass mur­der that claimed 22 lives in Nova Sco­tia about two weeks ago, the force is look­ing into de­vel­op­ing a na­tional op­er­a­tional pol­icy for us­ing the emer­gency alert sys­tem.

But ex­perts in law en­force­ment and emer­gency man­age­ment say au­thor­i­ties must strike a del­i­cate bal­ance be­tween in­form­ing the pub­lic about po­ten­tial threats and avoid­ing un­nec­es­sary panic. And as the tragedy in Nova Sco­tia shows, they say those judg­ments aren’t al­ways clear cut in the throes of cri­sis with lives on the line.

“Make no mis­take — none of us have ever ex­pe­ri­enced the kind of chaos that those of­fi­cers, first re­spon­ders and even the crit­i­cal in­ci­dent com­man­der faced that night,” said Terry Flynn, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Mcmaster Univer­sity.

“The crit­i­cal thing for them is that now, they un­for­tu­nately have a mass shoot­ing play­book.”

Flynn said that be­fore Canada launched its text-based na­tional alert sys­tem in 2018, RCMP con­sid­ered so­cial me­dia to be the best way to com­mu­ni­cate dur­ing a cri­sis.

Re­views of the 2014 shoot­ings in Monc­ton, N.B., and on Par­lia­ment Hill found that Twit­ter was a crit­i­cal tool for dis­sem­i­nat­ing real-time in­for­ma­tion to the pub­lic and me­dia as both in­ci­dents were un­fold­ing.

In a sim­i­lar vein, Nova Sco­tia RCMP used Twit­ter to send out up­dates as a firearms com­plaint in the tiny coastal vil­lage of Por­tapique on the evening of April 18 evolved into a shoot­ing and ar­son spree across cen­tral and north­ern parts of the prov­ince.

Moun­ties have faced ques­tions about why they re­lied on so­cial me­dia to get the word out when they could have sent an emer­gency no­ti­fi­ca­tion to ev­ery phone in the prov­ince. Some vic­tims’ rel­a­tives have called for the is­sue to be ex­am­ined as part of a pub­lic in­quiry into the mass mur­der.

Premier Stephen Mcneil has said emer­gency of­fi­cials were ready to is­sue an alert, but couldn’t act un­til the RCMP sup­plied in­for­ma­tion. The Moun­ties say they were craft­ing a mes­sage when the gun­man was fa­tally shot by po­lice in En­field, N.S., on April 19 af­ter a 13-hour man­hunt.

Nova Sco­tia RCMP Su­per­in­ten­dent Dar­ren Camp­bell told re­porters Tues­day that the force is con­duct­ing a “full re­view” of the use of the emer­gency alert sys­tem in con­sul­ta­tion with the prov­ince and the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Chiefs of Po­lice.

Na­tional RCMP spokes­woman Robin Per­ci­val said in an email that the force is look­ing at cre­at­ing a Canada-wide pol­icy, but said pub­lic alert pro­to­cols are gen­er­ally set out by pro­vin­cial emer­gency man­age­ment au­thor­i­ties.

Nova Sco­tia’s Emer­gency Man­age­ment Of­fice didn’t im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for de­tails about its pro­to­cols.

Flynn, who spe­cial­izes in cri­sis man­age­ment at Mcmaster, said in­sti­tut­ing clear pro­ce­dures and train­ing about when to is­sue an emer­gency alert could save lives in sit­u­a­tions where “sec­onds count.”

While it may seem wise for au­thor­i­ties to err on the side of cau­tion, Flynn warned that flood­ing peo­ple’s phones with no­ti­fi­ca­tions could fos­ter “alert fa­tigue,” po­ten­tially prompt­ing some to swipe away warn­ings about a present threat.

He said this “cover your be­hind” com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy may have been a fac­tor in a false alarm last month in Nova Sco­tia. Days af­ter the mas­sacre, the prov­ince is­sued an emer­gency alert about pos­si­ble shoot­ings in the Hal­i­fax area that turned out to be noth­ing, or in one case, con­struc­tion noise.

Tom Sta­matakis, pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tion, said it’s easy to crit­i­cize these calls with the ben­e­fit of hind­sight. But when you’re field­ing mul­ti­ple gun­fire re­ports a day, he said it’s not al­ways clear whether you’re deal­ing with a back­fir­ing car or a shooter on the run.

Sta­matakis de­clined to com­ment on the Nova Sco­tia killings be­cause the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing, but said emer­gency alerts are re­served for im­me­di­ate threats to life and limb, and it’s not an ac­tion po­lice take with the push of a but­ton.

While he sup­ports the ef­fort to es­tab­lish na­tional pub­lic alert pro­to­cols, Sta­matakis

said no hand­book can fully pre­pare po­lice to re­spond to a fast-chang­ing cri­sis like a mass shoot­ing.

“You’re as­sess­ing in­for­ma­tion as it comes in ... and the de­ci­sions you make are only as good as the in­for­ma­tion you’re get­ting,” he said. “I think it’s way too dif­fi­cult to come up with some kind of re­ally pre­scrip­tive for­mula that peo­ple should fol­low.”

Jack Rozdil­sky, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of disas­ter and emer­gency man­age­ment at York Univer­sity, agrees that a “one-size-fits-all” pol­icy won’t ac­count for the re­gional di­ver­sity of Cana­dian polic­ing.

Still, Rozdil­sky said he would like to see RCMP in­cor­po­rate cer­tain re­search-backed prin­ci­ples to en­sure emer­gency alerts contain in­for­ma­tion about what the threat is, who is at risk and for how long, what pro­tec­tive ac­tions peo­ple need to take and what the con­se­quences are if they don’t.

How­ever, he cau­tioned that au­thor­i­ties may not want to model these pro­to­cols af­ter last month’s tragedy in Nova Sco­tia.

“The na­ture of the threat of the mass shoot­ing that took place in Nova Sco­tia is maybe be­yond the ca­pac­ity of what we can ex­pect a warn­ing sys­tem to de­liver.”

He noted that even be­fore the shoot­ings, the prov­ince’s emer­gency re­sponse ca­pac­ity was al­ready taxed be­cause of the COVID-19 pan­demic.

To com­pli­cate mat­ters, Rozdil­sky said po­lice were deal­ing with a killer wreak­ing chaos and car­nage across 16 crime scenes, while dressed as an RCMP of­fi­cer and driv­ing a mock-up cruiser.

Send­ing a provincewi­de alert about this dis­guise could have backed up 911 lines with false re­ports of sus­pect sight­ings as po­lice swarmed the streets to hunt him down, said Rozdil­sky. There was also the po­ten­tial for “blue-on-blue” vi­o­lence if of­fi­cers mis­took a col­league for the killer.

Griev­ing fam­i­lies have ev­ery right to ques­tion what could have been done to avert such un­fath­omable loss, said Rozdil­sky, and au­thor­i­ties owe them an­swers.

But with so many un­knowns, Rozdil­sky said he’s re­serv­ing judg­ment un­til we get a fuller pic­ture of how these hor­rific events un­folded.

Given these considerat­ions, Rozdil­sky said us­ing emer­gency alert sys­tems can be “more of an art than a sci­ence.” And which­ever way you de­cide, the con­se­quences can be se­ri­ous, or in some cases, pos­si­bly fa­tal.

Rozdil­sky pointed to Jan­uary’s false alarm at a nu­clear power plant in Pick­er­ing, Ont., as an ex­am­ple of the panic that can en­sue when warn­ings go awry.

He said there’s even a slight risk that a cer­tain num­ber of peo­ple may die from heart at­tacks, car ac­ci­dents or reck­less be­hav­iour when they be­lieve that life-threat­en­ing dan­ger is im­mi­nent — even if it isn’t.

“We have the power to re­ally save lives if the tech­nol­ogy is em­ployed cor­rectly,” said Rozdil­sky.

“(But) we have to re­al­ize we’re still deal­ing with a com­plex so­ci­ety made of many dif­fer­ent hu­mans ... and that’s why we have to be care­ful.”

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