Ottawa should take lead on public alerts, Nova Scotia mass shooting inquiry told

Lawyer Patricia MacPhee, representing the Attorney General of Canada, questions Michael Hallowes, a specialist in digital platforms for public safety and national security, at the Mass Casualty Commission inquiry into the mass murders in rural Nova Scotia on April 18-19, 2020, in Dartmouth, NS, on May 11, 2022.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The federal department Public Safety Canada should play a greater role in quarterbacking Canada’s leaderless direct-to-cellphone alerting system, an expert has told the Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission.

Michael Hallowes, a consultant who served as a former emergency-management official, was called on Wednesday to give the commission an international perspective on public alerting. He spoke of how he pioneered Australia’s rollout of direct-to-cellphone warning technology a decade ago. That system was built to protect the public from deadly bushfires, he said, but he made sure to expand it to include police-issued warnings.

Canada’s alerting policies are relatively disjointed, Mr. Hallowes said, with many deficits in governance. Federal and provincial governments have at times shut out police from participating in alerting, he said, adding that Canadian officials have set no common standards and have also offloaded many key responsibilities.

Alerting policy “should be led, ultimately, by the federal authority responsible for public safety,” Mr. Hallowes said. He added that, ideally, this would involve a “senior public official who ultimately has responsibility for the success of the operational use of the capability.”

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The public inquiry in Halifax is examining why Canada’s national public-alerting system, known as Alert Ready, remained silent on April 18 and 19, 2020, when a gunman killed 22 people during a 13-hour overnight rampage across rural Nova Scotia before he was shot dead by police.

Local police had no experience in issuing cellphone alerts about an active shooter, even though the technology for such warnings was put in place two years before. This failure to warn the public about the gunman is one of the central issues for the mass-casualty inquiry.

Emergency management is a provincial responsibility in Canada, so issuing alerts about public-safety threats is often seen as a responsibility of regional emergency management organizations.

The federal government has not passed laws around alerting or set aside funding for the technology or for training. The Public Safety Canada department participates in policy discussions with the provinces, but it does not itself issue alerts. There are no common standards for alerting across Canada.

Statistics show that the provinces have issued alerts at starkly different rates since direct-to-cellphone alert capabilities were added in 2018 to Alert Ready’s existing systems of TV and radio warnings. Most often, these warnings highlight potentially deadly weather events. Police access to the alerting systems is an unsettled issue in many Canadian communities.

In his testimony, Mr. Hallowes recalled coming to Canada from Australia to speak at a 2015 meeting for emergency managers. He said senior civil servants were discussing alerting capabilities at the time but did not want a body representing police chiefs to participate.

“There was a request after my presentation to have a breakout discussion group which would be chaired by SOREM,” Mr. Hallowes said, referring to the federal-provincial body for senior officials responsible for emergency management. “There was a request by the representative of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police that they should also be involved in that breakout session. And that was declined.”

The police chiefs’ organization last year issued a public statement saying that officers across the country are still struggling to figure out how to send alerts and to navigate “significant governance gaps” in the system.

“It has to be the role of the police to have direct access,” Mr. Hallowes said.

During his testimony, he stressed that Canada is unlike any other country given how governments have offloaded responsibility for building and paying for the alerting system’s technological infrastructure.

For more than a decade, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has been directing Pelmorex Corporation, a television channel, to create this technology in partnership with other corporations. No taxpayer dollars are being used to build and maintain the technology. Instead, the funds are drawn from diverted cable-TV revenues.

“I don’t know of any other country that has taken that approach,” Mr. Hallowes said. ”It is very different. To have a national project that is delivering emergency management and emergency service capability that is not on the front line of the consequences of implementation is very unusual.”

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