Government and public safety officials have a responsibility to alert the public when they face imminent risk to their health and security and to provide guidance about how they can protect themselves. “When an emergency happens, seconds count,” Chuck Porter, the minister responsible for Nova Scotia’s Emergency Management Office, announced in 2018 during testing of the province’s public notification system.

This is why officials in Nova Scotia are now facing serious questions about why not a single SMS notification was issued to the public during the 13 hours that a gunman disguised as a police officer slaughtered 22 people in what is now Canada’s worst mass shooting. Instead, the RCMP relied exclusively on Twitter to notify the public about developments in the unfolding violence and its manhunt for the killer.

Our objective here is to offer some context to those questions, to situate them such that we might better understand what options authorities had available to them when literally every second counted.

Alert Ready: Canada’s SMS notification system

Two years ago, on April 6, 2018, Ralph Goodale, then federal Public Safety Minister, introduced Alert Ready, a smartphone-based national public alerting system that would be used to support federal, provincial, territorial and municipal emergency notification and response. “By adding smartphones to our emergency alert system,” he said, “we will be able to reach more Canadians, faster, in times of crisis. The safety of Canadians is our highest priority.” This was an important decision that helped modernize Canada’s emergency communications infrastructure.

Nova Scotia does not have much experience with the Alert Ready system. Of the 131 emergency notifications issued nationwide in 2019, not a single one was from Nova Scotia. This year, on Easter weekend, the province’s Emergency Management Office broadcast its first alert to urge Nova Scotians to stay home to limit the spread of COVID-19. Employing the SMS emergency network to encourage public vigilance in the face of a global pandemic was a good use of the technology and brought the province in line with other Canadian jurisdictions (Ontario had already issued two alerts on March 27 and April 4).

Among the many crucial questions being asked now about the official response to the Nova Scotia mass shooting, arguably the most urgent is why the RCMP chose to use Twitter for public notification instead of the Alert Ready system given its much broader and immediate reach.

The night the shootings began, on Saturday, April 18, the Critical Incident Command Team’s social media manager shared the first hint of trouble with a tweet at 11:32 p.m. local time, alerting residents to a firearms complaint and warning them “to stay in their homes with doors locked.”  The next morning, the RCMP began providing real-time updates. At 8:02 a.m., it reported that police were “on scene in #Portapique. This is an active shooter situation.” Then at 8:54 a.m., it tweeted a photo of the suspect with the hashtag Portapique: “51-year-old Gabriel Wortman is the suspect in our active shooter investigation in #Portapique. There are several victims. He is considered armed & dangerous.”

By the time these morning updates were tweeted, the shooter had left the Portapique area and murdered other victims approximately 40 kilometres away. RCMP would tweet more updates over the next several hours before finally announcing at 11:40 a.m. that the suspect was in custody (though by then he was actually dead, killed in an exchange with officers).

What are we to make of the RCMP decision to exclusively use Twitter keep the public notified of operational developments? Why did police not take advantage of the Alert Ready system, which was designed precisely for this kind of public safety emergency?

In a national radio interview on CBC’s As It Happens, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki reasoned that the use of social media for public notification had been identified as a best practice (time stamp 1:41) after the murder of three RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick, in June 2014 (prior to the launch of Alert Ready’s wireless system and a few months before the Parliament Hill shooting in which Corporal Nathan Cirillo was murdered). Social media was identified as an essential element for all communications, she said. “Obviously there is now the emergency alert systems but, you know, in this situation, the command centre used what they knew – and that was social media – to alert people.”

In one sense, the commissioner is correct. There is a substantial body of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed literature showing the benefit of using Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms to support operational response during a crisis event. The transformation of the mediascape has altered the relationship between citizens, governments and public security authorities in profound ways. Social media, in particular, allows authorities to communicate directly with the public, and enables public response to critical incidents in cases where that could be helpful. Studies also show how Twitter can support reputation management and promote community building on the part of police.

Clearly, if we take the commissioner’s public statements at face value, a decision was made to use Twitter because it was the tool most familiar to those involved on the front lines of the incident command team. But was it the best option? Should the Alert Ready system, with its efficiency and reach, not have been a priority platform for alerting Nova Scotians in the region of the clear and present danger they faced?

Just over 50,000 people live in Colchester County, the municipal region that includes Portapique. It is difficult to know how many of them are active Twitter users. That type of information is not publicly disclosed.

What we do know, based on StatsCan data, is that there are approximately 22,000 private dwellings occupied by usual residents in the county. Eighty-seven percent of those households have access to a mobile device, according to CRTC data on household communication services. We can therefore reasonably conclude that approximately 19,000 households in that county could have been alerted directly by SMS that a shooter was on the loose, that he was dressed as a police officer, and they should remain indoors and report any suspicious activities to 911.

In times of emergency, authorities must be able to reach the greatest number of people with the least effort. In this case, the Critical Incident Commander authorized a warning to be issued via Twitter but did not activate the province’s emergency notification system when the public needed that information to keep safe. The day after the shooting, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil acknowledged that the province’s alert system is “ready to go” but had not been used because “no request was received at the Emergency Management Office from the RCMP.” Nova Scotia’s former emergency communications coordinator, Terry Canning, was more direct: “Somebody within the Royal Constabulary fucked up big time.”

An official inquiry of this tragedy will certainly be conducted to determine what went wrong in the RCMP response. We anticipate that difficult questions will be asked about why the RCMP chose not to activate the province’s emergency notification system – and so they should.

Were members of the incident management team unfamiliar with the Alert Ready system? Did they overestimate the reach of their official Twitter account? Was there concern that a mass SMS alert would cause the public to panic? The shooter disguised himself as an RCMP officer; was there concern that a more widespread alert of this nature might somehow put other officers at risk? What internal organizational barriers might have inhibited the Critical Incident Commander from requesting the implementation of the emergency alert?

Nova Scotians and all Canadians deserve to know the answers to these and other questions, and nothing short of a fully transparent and accountable inquiry should be accepted.

Photo: Debert, Nova Scotia, on Highway 104., by rustycanuck 

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Terry Flynn
Terry Flynn is an associate professor of communications management and the graduate director of the Master of Communications Management degree program at McMaster University. Prior to joining McMaster, Terry spent 20 years as a crisis and risk communications specialist working with such organizations as the Town of Walkerton during the e-coli crisis in 2000.
Joshua Greenberg
Josh Greenberg, PhD, is a professor of communication and media studies in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. His research expertise is in the area of crisis and health risk communication. He has collaborated with and provided expert guidance and advice to the World Health Organization, Transportation Research Board (US), Council of Canadian Academies, and Public Health Agency of Canada, among others.

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