CBC News obtained documents through an access-to-information request that shed light on the Nova Scotia Emergency Management Office’s internal communications on April 19, 2020, as well as the contact officials had with RCMP regarding the possibility of sending out an alert to warn the public.
The records show that three hours before RCMP stopped their suspect at 11:26 a.m. AT, provincial officials were discussing the possibility of the force requesting an alert. But despite efforts to call the RCMP several times around 10:35 a.m., the only response the province received was that someone would be in touch to discuss. In those 51 minutes, three other people were killed before word came in that the suspect was in custody.
In Nova Scotia, the agency in charge of a given situation must decide that an alert needs to be issued and then send the request and message text to the Emergency Management Office (EMO).
On the evening of Saturday, April 18, a 51-year-old denturist injured two people and killed 13 neighbours in the tiny village of Portapique, N.S. He escaped after torching two homes of his victims, his cottage and garage. The following morning, he killed nine more people, including several strangers he encountered while driving a decommissioned police vehicle outfitted to look all but identical to an RCMP cruiser.
In all, the shooter travelled nearly 200 kilometres through several rural communities before police shot and killed him at a gas station in Enfield, N.S.
The new records show provincial employees first learned of a problem in Portapique at 10:39 p.m. on April 18, about 15 minutes after RCMP officers first arrived on scene. Staff at the province’s dispatch centre in Shubenacadie received a call about two structure fires “that could not be fought because of a high-risk situation,” according to a timeline released through freedom of information.
The fire information was passed on in the event that the Department of Lands and Forestry needed to get involved if it spread into the woods. The timeline released to CBC does not include transcripts of the calls themselves. Provincial staff were instructed to fill out a spreadsheet on April 20, but it’s not clear if all calls were noted or if the times listed were verified.
The spreadsheet timeline shows that around 6 a.m. on April 19, RCMP Staff Sgt. Steve Halliday was in touch with Andrew Mitton, an EMO duty officer, about the possibility of needing assistance with evacuating residents from Portapique. Halliday also requested the use of a Lands and Forestry helicopter.
The first recorded mention of an alert came at 8:19 a.m, when Paul Mason, the EMO executive director, asked Jason Mew, the director of the office’s incident management division, to bring in extra staff to the Provincial Coordination Centre, which is the hub of emergency decision-making in Nova Scotia during situations like natural disasters and was already being used due to the COVID-19 response.
EMO on ‘purely precautionary’ standby
At 8:36 a.m., Mew advised Mason that staff were ready to issue an alert “at the request of the RCMP.” About an hour later, an EMO business analyst emailed the support desk at Pelmorex, the company that operates the Alert Ready system.
“There has been no request from RCMP as of yet and our standby is purely precautionary, please treat our readiness to send an alert as confidential information,” wrote Aaron MacEachern.
But it appears there was no contact with the Mounties until 10:35 a.m., when at Mason’s urging, Dominic Fewer, an EMO planning officer, started calling the RCMP’s Division Emergency Operations Centre.
Fewer tried three times and didn’t get through, but did receive a text that Glenn Mason of the RCMP would be in touch with the coordination centre as “they would like to have a discussion on alert ready message.”
By that point, RCMP had named their suspect and tweeted he was in what appeared to be a marked vehicle. That Sunday morning, it also sent out five tweets about the gunman’s possible locations after it became apparent he was on the move. Emergency Management Officials had also been in touch with one of their colleagues who had been inside the Onslow Belmont Fire Hall, where police had mistakenly opened fire.
Fewer asked his colleagues to get in touch with Glenn Mason of the RCMP at 11:12 a.m., and Michael Bennett, listed as being the incident commander at the provincial centre, called two minutes later “advising we were prepared to use Alert Ready.”
At 11:21 a.m., Glenn Mason called “indicating it would be used” and asked Bennett to reach out to Insp. Dustine Rodier. After Bennett failed to get through to Rodier twice, he spoke with Mason again at 11:31 a.m. and learned the shooter was “in custody.”
As news of the tragedy spread that Sunday, people immediately began questioning why the Mounties chose to release information on Twitter and did not send out an alert that would have gone to people’s phones. Many people pointed out that internet service is spotty in central and northern Nova Scotia and Twitter use is not widespread.
Family members of some of the nine people killed Sunday morning have since stated their loved ones could have been saved had they known there was an active shooter in their communities.
The records obtained through freedom of information show provincial staff began receiving questions from news organizations and messages from the public, including from a woman in Wentworth who questioned why people weren’t informed through an alert.
By mid-afternoon on April 19, the records show staff were discussing how to respond to questions. Proposed answers sent to Chuck Porter, the minister responsible for EMO, to review were redacted.
Premier said province needed wording
On April 21, 2020, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said the province had staff ready to send out an alert, but didn’t receive a request from RCMP.
“We are the lead agency and the RCMP has to ask for that alert to go out because, quite frankly, we need that information from them — what is it that they want in that alert to notify citizens?” McNeil said.
During an April 22 news conference, Chris Leather, the chief superintendent of the Nova Scotia RCMP, said EMO contacted the RCMP at 10:15 a.m. “to offer the use of a public emergency alerting system.”
“We were in the process of preparing an alert when the gunman was shot and killed by the RCMP,” he said.
Since the mass killings, a number of emergency alerts have been sent out in Nova Scotia. In January, Porter said he was willing to discuss granting police direct access to issue public alerts, as is done in New Brunswick.
However, Porter cautioned that does not guarantee speedier action in notifying the public about an unfolding situation.