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Emergency alert timing scrutiny in N.S. regarding N.B. shooting suspect: Here’s what we know

Click to play video 'RCMP, EMO officials in N.S. criticized for delay in releasing public alert message' RCMP, EMO officials in N.S. criticized for delay in releasing public alert message
RCMP and emergency management officials in N.S. have been criticized for the delay in issuing an alert after a shooting suspect on the loose in New Brunswick was then able to make his way into neighboring N.S. Callum Smith reports – Jan 7, 2021

RCMP and government officials in Nova Scotia are taking flack for a delayed emergency alert after a Riverview, N.B., shooting suspect was eventually taken into police custody in Amherst, N.S. Wednesday.

Nova Scotia’s premier and justice minister are blaming the police force, while the opposition Tories are among those blaming the government.

The Nova Scotia RCMP tweeted at 10:39 a.m. Wednesday that it was requesting an alert in connection with the search for alleged shooter Janson Bryan Baker. After 11:40 a.m., an alert was sent to Nova Scotians; one hour later.

The province disputes that timeline, saying it only took 7 minutes from when the message was received by the Emergency Management Office (EMO) to when it was sent out.

Each province and territory manages the use of its national alert system. In Nova Scotia, EMO is the body that sends the alerts out. That means RCMP have to go through EMO to share messaging for an alert.

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Alert distribution done differently

Unlike its provincial neighbour, New Brunswick decided to hand over the emergency alerts to the N.B. RCMP for all police-specific alerts, with the goal of streamlining the process this past August.

N.B. Premier Blaine Higgs says the government delegated the authority of distributing police-specific emergency alerts — for all forces in the province — to New Brunswick RCMP in wake of the Nova Scotia massacre in April, when 22 people were killed and RCMP were also criticized for not issuing an alert.

“There was a lot of concern for the public,” Higgs says of the April shootings. “That was tragic beyond all measures.”

“People didn’t know and felt they should’ve had an increased warning of what was going on in their community and in the area.”

He noted the N.B. RCMP activated the system Tuesday night, when New Brunswickers received multiple alerts about the same suspect, Baker, who was believed to be armed.

Click to play video 'Teacher recovering following N.B. shooting incident' Teacher recovering following N.B. shooting incident
Teacher recovering following N.B. shooting incident – Jan 7, 2021

Prior to the transfer in responsibility, two alerts have been issued in New Brunswick, according to Geoffrey Downey, a spokesperson with New Brunswick’s Department of Justice & Public Safety.

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“The first time was during the RCMP shootings in Moncton in 2014,” he says in a statement. “The second was during the ice storm in 2017 after fatalities were reported due to improper use of generators.”

RCMP respond

Nova Scotia RCMP and New Brunswick RCMP both issued statements Thursday addressing concerns related to communication.

“It is clear there is political and public desire for police to issue emergency alerts. This desire manifests as demand without understanding of public safety risk or the incident,” said Chief Superintendent Chris Leather, a criminal operations officer for the Nova Scotia RCMP.

“This is reflected in demands for alerts to be issued sooner and even for incidents where the alert may result in greater harm to the public or police. Public statements being made without fact undermine excellent police work and solid operational decisions,” Leather said.

“We know the desire for information when incidents are unfolding. We communicate publicly in real time and have been doing this very well for years.”

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Assistant Commissioner Larry Tremblay, the commanding officer of the New Brunswick RCMP, also issued a statement saying the force in that province was prepared to use an alert from the “very outset of the incident” if the “circumstances warrant its use.”

Tremblay says it was an “alarming incident” for many, and that he recognizes there have been questions of the alert system and when information was distributed.

“No police officer or agency can know everything about an evolving situation immediately,” Tremblay says.

“It is our responsibility, duty and commitment to the communities we serve to investigate, gather facts, determine risk, and act to protect people,” the statement reads. “This is exactly what we did, and we shared information we knew could keep people safe once we could confirm it was credible and accurate.”

Retired NS EMO planning officer shares experience

Global News spoke with Stephen Mills, a retired RCMP officer and retired NS Emergency Management Office (EMO) planning officer, to try to learn more about the process. Mills retired from the RCMP after 31 years with the force, before working 10 years for EMO, helping the provincial rollout of the national alert system.

Prior to April of 2020, Mills says he believes no emergency alerts have been sent out in Nova Scotia. The first sent out was April 10 to enforce a public health message about COVID-19.

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“Never been used before for an operational alert,” he says, “so it was just new out of the box; it had been tested, but that was really it up until then.”

The system really only became fully operational in 2018; including sending emergency alerts through text messages, along with TVs and radios.

Here is when and why Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have issued emergency alerts since 2018. Pelmorex

Mills says the April N.S. shootings and the recent Riverview shooting are both “very dynamic” situations.

“The timing is crucial on these things,” Mills says. “And alerts typically would take an hour or two hours to put out there. That’s really not going to work for those kinds of events.”

Police should be responsible for alerts for three types of police matters if resources can be put in place, Mills says.

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“Terrorism, Amber Alert and an active shooter, which is actually on the periphery of the policy that’s in place,” he says. “So I’m sure that’s part of the struggle with some of these alerts is that it really doesn’t fit with the current policy.”

He noted a recent escaped prisoner alert likely shouldn’t have qualified.

The recent Maritime police matters have been categorized as civil emergencies. Other types of alerts can be found here, but again, policies are crafted provincially.

Read more: When do active shooters prompt emergency alerts? Police across Canada offer few details

One problem with suspect-related alerts, Mills says, is that photos and video cannot be used; the alerts can only include text.

Opposition MLA blames government for delay

Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, the PC MLA for Cumberland North, says she received the New Brunswick alert near midnight Tuesday, but was stunned to learn online the suspect’s vehicle was in Nova Scotia.

She said she called Amherst Police and Cumberland District RCMP and the Department of Justice to find out why no alert was being issued. With no concrete answers, she says, she asked one be sent out.

“As time went on, really, just got angrier and angrier as did everyone in our community that there was no alert sent out,” she said in an interview with Global News Wednesday. “A lot of people are pretty angry right now… We’re grateful he’s arrested, but they should have been made aware… and after what happened in Portapique, there’s no excuse.”

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The suspect was eventually arrested one block away from her Amherst constituency office, she says.

When asked if she blamed police or government for the timing of the alert, Smith-McCrossin says to her understanding, the blame would falls on EMO.

But she says she’s been looking for further information since April, but says “it’s not easy to find” information on the system.

Thursday, she issued a statement calling for Municipal Affairs Minister Chuck Porter to be removed from his post.

“If the Emergency Management Office in its current capacity is not able to deliver these alerts in a timely manner, then the process needs an overhaul,” she said. “At minimum, it needs a new minister.”

EMO is within the jurisdiction of Municipal Affairs in Nova Scotia.

Minister open to model similar to N.B.

Porter responded to say “perhaps they should educate themselves” in response to opposition concerns.

But in response to a question about making the alerrt process quicker, Porter did say RCMP, or other responding police forces, are the “experts on the file they know by the minute.”

“They know when it is best to issue the alert and what needs to be said,” he says, so he directed further questions to the RCMP.

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Porter admitted he’d be open to a similar model to New Brunswick, removing EMO from the process.

“Absolutely,” he says. “We’re working with the RCMP, we’ll continue to have those conversations with them.”

Read more: RCMP to draft national emergency alert policy after Nova Scotia shootings

A police force would still need to “go through their process” to issue an alert “when the time was right,” he cautioned.

He has “every confidence in the world” in the current system of RCMP and EMO working together, and its ability to respond to active situations.

RCMP national policy

An RCMP spokesperson from the force’s national headquarters in Ottawa says the “standard operating procedures” for when to use an alert would be the responsibility of provinces or territories, but did say the force is developing a national operational policy “to provide guidance for RCMP officers on the use of the national Alert Ready system.”

“Developing operational policy consists of many steps including reviews of current police best practices, canvassing the broader police community, consulting with internal working groups and consulting with partners and stakeholders,” says a statement from Cpl. Caroline Duval.

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