Mounties in Nova Scotia are under scrutiny for not issuing an emergency alert as a gunman rampaged through rural communities, but there’s nothing in the national RCMP handbook to suggest that 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.”
Before Canada launched its text-based national alert system in 2018, Flynn said 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 flooding people’s 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 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, all the while dressed as an RCMP officer and driving a mock-up cruiser.
Sending a province-wide 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 January’s false alarm at a nuclear power plant in Pickering, Ont., as an example of the panic that can ensue when these warning systems are misused.
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.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2020.