There was an active shooter. Why didn’t Nova Scotia send an emergency alert?

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WATCH: Nova Scotia RCMP say there are in excess of 19 deaths linked to a mass shooting in Nova Scotia. That number is expected to rise as investigators dig through the charred remains of homes that have been burned to the ground – Apr 20, 2020

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include new information from Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil provided during a Tuesday press conference.

Tony Gibbs, a resident of Wentworth, N.S. — a town where some of the attacks allegedly occurred in last weekend’s mass shooting — said he and his wife were frightened when they learned there was active shooter loose in their community.

“To have the kind of event happen here, in rural Nova Scotia, it was shocking and scary,” he said.

“We didn’t have any idea what was happening other than the fact that we knew there was somebody running around, possibly still in our local area.”

Gibbs is also concerned by how he and his wife found out about the shooter: a call from their neighbour, rather than a provincewide alert.

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“At least we would’ve been aware had an alert come out across our phones,” Gibbs said.

No explanation why an alert wasn’t issued

On Monday, the RCMP said police were searching through 16 different crime scenes, including the remains of five burned-out buildings.

The RCMP confirmed that at least 23 people had been killed but added that there will likely be more victims found as crime scenes are further investigated.

The RCMP could not, however, explain why an emergency alert wasn’t issued to warn Nova Scotians of the threat posed by an active shooter who could not be found.

“It’s a good question, and I don’t have an answer for you at this moment,” said RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather during a Monday press conference.

Leather was asked twice to explain why the province’s alert system, which experts say uses radio, television and cellular networks to warn residents of serious threats to health and safety, including “active law enforcement responses,” wasn’t used.

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“We have relied on (Twitter) because of the instantaneous manner that we can communicate. We have thousands of followers in Nova Scotia and felt that it was a superior way to communicate this ongoing threat,” he said.

Premier won’t comment on alert

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil did not comment Monday on whether an emergency alert should have been issued.

He did, however, confirm the RCMP did not ask the province’s Emergency Management Office to send out an alert.

McNeil added that Nova Scotia is a “province in mourning” and that there will be an appropriate time in the future for further questions.

“I’m not going to second guess why someone or the organization did what they did or didn’t do in this moment in time,” he said. “This was an active environment, I can tell you; deaths, gunfire. Let’s give them an opportunity as an organization to explain.”

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On Tuesday, McNeil provided more information about the absence of an alert.

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He said the EMO brought in staff Sunday morning — on their own accord — to be ready to activate the province’s emergency alert system if asked to do so by the RCMP, but that no request was ever made.

McNeil didn’t explain why the request wasn’t made, adding that this is a question best left for the RCMP to answer.

“That is something that all Nova Scotians are wondering,” McNeil said.

Expert surprised alert wasn’t used

The RCMP should use all tools at its disposal, Dan Henstra, an expert in emergency preparedness at the University of Waterloo, said. This includes the Alert Ready system, which, Henstra said, has proven highly effective in communicating threats to the public.

“The RCMP and other emergency officials should use every available channel to reach those at risk,” he said.

He’s not sure why the RCMP didn’t use the province’s emergency alert system to warn residents about the active shooter.

He said the system — which many people associate with Amber Alerts for missing children — is meant to warn residents about different kinds of emergencies.

“It is a little surprising that the RCMP didn’t use the (alert) system, one purpose of which is to notify residents about ‘civil emergencies,’’ he said.

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Click to play video: 'RCMP commissioner on how the public was alerted to active shooter situation in Nova Scotia'
RCMP commissioner on how the public was alerted to active shooter situation in Nova Scotia

Still, Henstra said, there are possible reasons why police might have decided against using the alert system.

This includes the idea that, during a situation that’s evolving rapidly, police might have felt any alert they sent out would be “outdated as soon as it is sent — necessitating even more messages and thereby irritating recipients,” he said.

It’s an ‘unavoidable’ question

Tom Taggart, a municipal councillor for the County of Colchester, represents several communities where victims were killed. This includes Portapique, where the suspect owned several properties and where the shootings allegedly began.

Out of respect for victims and grieving family members, Taggart said he doesn’t want to get into the details of why an alert wasn’t issued, but he believes an alert would have been helpful if it was sent out.

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He also said that when he woke up to the news of what was happening on Sunday morning, it wasn’t at all clear to him how severe the situation was or what type of advice he should have been giving residents to help keep them safe.

“It’s an unavoidable question,” he said, referring to why an alert wasn’t sent out. “And I can tell you that it’s on everyone’s mind.”

For now, Taggart said his focus is on making sure everyone has access to the help they need, including mental health and grief counselling services and any other resources being provided by the municipality and the province.

“These are real people, young people, children, that don’t have any parents anymore,” he said. “I want to try and help them first.”

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