As Canadians try to make sense of the mass shooting that occurred in Nova Scotia two weeks ago, why the RCMP used Twitter instead of a provincewide emergency alert to warn residents of the dangers they faced remains unclear.
So far, police have said they chose Twitter because it is their “normal method” of communicating with the public and because of its “superior” ability to transmit information instantaneously.
But many people, including politicians and family members of some of the victims, have said an emergency alert should have been issued as soon as it was clear a murderer was on the loose and couldn’t be found.
Global News asked police departments across Canada to provide details on what, if any, protocols they have in place that give guidance to officers when deciding if an emergency alert should be used. Their responses provided few details.
So, if an active shooter were loose in any other community in Canada, would police respond differently?
Maybe, but not necessarily.
“We are looking into and will be pursuing an emergency alert system should — God forbid — a similar (situation) happen in our province,” said Const. Tania Visintin from the Vancouver Police Department.
“Should an emergency occur today, for example, we would use our social media channels to get messages across — i.e. Twitter.”
Some plans, few details
In general, police responded to questions about their emergency alert protocols by saying they have the authority to request an emergency alert — in most provinces, emergency management officials are responsible for issuing alerts — but gave few details about how they would decide if an alert should be requested.
Some police forces, such as those in Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary and Edmonton, plus several RCMP provincial divisions, said the decision to activate the emergency alert system is made on a “case-by-case” basis by the officer responsible for the investigation.
They also said training exercises for emergency and active shooter situations are conducted on a regular basis. This includes reviewing strategies for communicating with the public.
“It would depend on the circumstances of the incident,” said Const. Jay Murray of the Winnipeg Police Service.
“This is consistent with a lot of aspects of policing, in that we would utilize our training and experience to determine when an alert would be most appropriate.”
No national RCMP strategy
Global News has reported that there is “no national RCMP strategy” for when Canada’s emergency Alert Ready system should be used, even in cases involving an active shooter.
RCMP headquarters also said it does not know what local policies are in place to assist its provincial divisions when deciding whether to issue an alert, adding that these protocols, if they exist, are not tracked on a national level.
Quebec’s provincial police — the Sûreté du Québec — and Montreal police said they have strategies for responding to active shooter and terror threats but said they can’t disclose details of these plans because doing so could jeopardize public safety.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Police Service and Ontario Provincial Police said they can request an alert through Ontario’s Provincial Emergency Operations Centre but provided no details about how or when such a decision would be made.
“While we don’t disclose operational procedures, live incidents often involve multiple units within the service, as well as external agencies, to provide a comprehensive response,” said TPS spokesperson Connie Osborne.
Developing new strategies
While the RCMP has no national protocol for issuing emergency alerts, they plan to create one following the mass shooting in Nova Scotia.
Several provincial divisions of the RCMP, which operate semi-independently of the national headquarters, told Global News they are either reviewing existing plans or creating new strategies for how to use their respective emergency alert systems.
This includes Nova Scotia RCMP, which said last week that they are working with provincial officials and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to address concerns about why an emergency alert wasn’t issued to warn residents about the gunman.
“We’re certainly very aware of that issue, and we’re conducting a full review,” Supt. Darren Campbell said in response to questions from Global News.
Halifax Regional Police are also strengthening their policies for sharing information with the public during an emergency.
“The recent tragic events have triggered an important conversation about police response and communicating during crises,” said Const. John Macleod.
“We will be factoring into this work consideration around the public alert system, as well as (developing) necessary emergency protocols that would provide clear guidance for its effective and appropriate deployment and use.”
Meanwhile, Peel Regional Police, who serve the communities of Mississauga and Brampton, Ont., said they are working with other provincial police forces to create a formal strategy for using the emergency alert system beyond warning the public about missing children.
“At this time there is no provincial mandate as to the use of an emergency alert, outside of the Amber Alert system,” said Const. Kyle Villers.
“We are currently working on establishing a framework with our provincial policing partners on an alerting system surrounding emergent situations, including active shooter incidents.”
This work, according to the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP), has been ongoing for several years but is difficult to accomplish because no two emergency situations — including active shooter incidents — are the same.
“What happened in Nova Scotia certainly has initiated a lot of renewed discussion and another lense being put to what should the criteria (for an alert) include,” said Supt. Chris Newton, chair of OACP’s emergency management committee.
Newton didn’t provide details of the new framework and what it might look like once complete but said OACP’s work is focussed more on making sure the process for requesting and issuing an alert is efficient, rather than developing specific criteria for when an alert must be sent out.
He also said police conduct regular training exercises, including reviewing their communication strategies for warning the public.
Still, he said, police forces from across the province are scrutinizing their policies with the aim of making sure they’re sufficient to protect people and warn them of any potential dangers they face if a similar event were to occur in Ontario.
“Any time you have an extreme incident, such as what happened in Nova Scotia, I think all police services, both individually and collectively, should take a look at their procedures,” he said.
“What if something similar happened here? Are we prepared?’”