Two RCMP officers searching for the Nova Scotia gunman on the morning of April 19 believed they had the killer in their sights at the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade hall.
One hid behind a dumpster and the other took cover in a ditch as they aimed their semi-automatic weapons at their target and tried frantically to communicate with colleagues over the radio. But none of their calls were ever heard.
That’s because the province’s emergency response radio system — the Maritime Public Safety Radio Network — was overwhelmed, according to a report issued by the province’s Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) on March 2.
The report found that more than half the calls made by the two officers involved in the shooting while they were on duty that morning were recorded as having no audio — meaning they couldn’t communicate. In total, about 14 per cent of all radio transmissions made by RCMP officers during a seven-hour period of the manhunt that morning failed.
“The sole reason why (the officer) was unable to transmit what they were seeing was because there was no available talk path due to the heavy volume of radio traffic,” the SIRT report said.
Unable to communicate, the officers shouted at their target, located more than 88 meters away, identifying themselves as police and telling him to “show your hands.”
When the target didn’t respond, and instead ducked behind a police vehicle, they opened fire.
“Based on everything the officers had seen and heard since coming on duty, and what they had observed at the time, they had reasonable grounds to believe that the male (they were shooting at) was the killer and someone who would continue his killing rampage,” the SIRT report said.
What the officers didn’t realize at the time they opened fire was that the person they were firing at wasn’t the gunman — it was an Emergency Management Office (EMO) employee stationed at the fire hall who happened to be dressed similarly to the gunman and standing near a marked RCMP cruiser.
The officers also didn’t realize that a fellow RCMP officer was stationed at the fire hall that morning and was sitting in his vehicle, next to the EMO employee, when they started shooting.
“(The EMO employee) did not show his hands but rather ducked behind the marked police car then popped up and ran toward the fire hall entrance as the (officers) fired their weapons,” the SIRT report said.
According to the SIRT report, the officer stationed at the fire hall that morning tried to use his radio three times within a 10-second window while his colleagues were shooting. One of these calls was audible, one was partially audible, and the other had no audio at all, the report said.
When a radio call is recorded as having “no audio” it means no one is talking or the call failed, either because the radio is in an area with poor coverage or because the system is overloaded, the SIRT report said.
Investigators who looked into the shooting tested the radios used by the RCMP officers that day. They determined the radios functioned well and were in an area with good coverage at the time of the shooting.
The report also found that 36 of 70 radio calls made by the two officers who fired their weapons while on shift that morning were recorded as having no audio.
In total, 306 of 2,245 radio transmissions made by RCMP officers between 3 a.m. and 10:21 a.m. on April 19 were recorded as having no audio, the SIRT report said.
“(The officers) tried several times to advise other officers of what they were seeing by using the mobile radio in the vehicle,” the SIRT report said.
“Both (officers) got out of their vehicle with their rifles. (The second officer) tried again to advise other officers of what they were seeing, this time by using a portable radio, but still could not get through because again the radio ‘bonged.’”
According to RadioReference.com, which describes itself as the world’s largest radio communications data provider with more than 700,000 members and thousands of live-streamed public safety radio channels, there are two radio towers in Nova Scotia’s emergency radio network that provide coverage to the area where the Onslow fire hall is located.
One of the towers, in Londonderry, is farther away and the fire hall is located near the edge of its coverage area. The second tower, in Hinden, is much closer to the fire hall.
Both the Londonderry and Hinden radio towers are in Colchester County, which is where the killing spree began in Portapique on April 18.
Colchester is also the radio channel where the “vast majority” of RCMP transmissions occurred during the manhunt, the SIRT report said.
History of radio problems
What happened at the Onslow fire hall isn’t the first example of police in Canada having problems with their radios during a crisis.
Several independent reports and reviews into past incidents have identified radio failures and an inability of law enforcement officials to communicate effectively as significant issues.
A report following the murder of three RCMP officers in Moncton, N.B., by a gunman in June 2014 concluded that communications suffered during the manhunt for the suspect because the radio system was overwhelmed and because too many people were “competing for air time on a single channel.”
Following that report, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia upgraded their emergency radio systems to improve “interoperability” between different law enforcement agencies and to enhance coverage.
The system the provinces use has dedicated radio channels for specific organizations. In Nova Scotia, the RCMP has 71 channels used solely for police communications.
According to the SIRT report, nearly all police radio communication during the search for the Nova Scotia gunman was carried out on three RCMP channels, including a channel dedicated to the Mounties’ Emergency Response Team.
Roughly 74 per cent of these communications were transmitted on a single radio channel — the RCMP’s Colchester channel.
Global News asked the RCMP why such a large volume of radio traffic during the Nova Scotia manhunt was transmitted over a single radio channel, and whether the RCMP’s inability to communicate properly at the Onslow fire hall put the lives of emergency personnel and other officers at risk.
The RCMP refused to answer these questions, saying radio communications will be examined as part of an ongoing internal review into the fire hall shooting, which began in September.
Radio system ‘did not fail’
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia government said an overall review of the province’s radio system conducted after the killing spree showed that it “did not fail” and that it was operating “within acceptable standards” during the search for the gunman.
The government did, however, acknowledge that “specific and momentary peaks in traffic can sometimes cause (radio) systems to reach capacity and delay communications.”
The government’s response did not indicate whether such peaks occurred during the search for the gunman.
“While we are confident in the radio communications system, we are always working to ensure we are providing the best service possible,” said government spokesperson Tracy Barron.
“We are reviewing the SIRT report and require additional information to be shared with us to determine precisely what happened.”
When asked how the government defines “acceptable standards,” Barron said rules for public safety radio systems are set and regulated by the federal government.
“We are continually looking for ways to improve communications and operations. We are reviewing the SIRT report in detail and analyzing the communications specific to the Onslow fire hall incident to see if improvements can be made,” she said.
“Communication systems do not have unlimited capacity. They are designed to manage traffic based on priority. If radio traffic is higher than what the system is designed for, it can result in a delay of a few seconds.”
Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s Justice Minister Randy Delorey refused to provide specific details about what, if anything, the province is doing to improve radio communication in light of the SIRT report findings.
Delorey also declined to say whether the RCMP’s inability to communicate effectively at the Onslow fire hall endangered the lives of emergency personnel during the search for the gunman.
“The most extensive assessment of the (police) operations that would be conducted would be through the public inquiry,” he said.
“That process is underway and they would be in a position to make recommendations or clarifications of changes that may be needed.”
A full-scale inquiry into the killing spree was ordered by the federal and provincial governments in July following a public outcry over an earlier decision to launch an independent review into the matter.
The inquiry, which has not yet begun hearings, must deliver an interim report by May 2022 and a final report six months later.