Why was no emergency alert issued during the rampage in Nova Scotia?

OTTAWA —
Kristin and Nick Beaton were lying in bed watching the news of the mass killing in Portapique, Nova Scotia on Saturday night. By the time they awoke Sunday morning, they assumed the rampage had ended.

Within hours, Kristin was killed by Gabriel Wortman – one of his at least 22 victims.

“We thought he was taken care of. If I had known he was on the loose I would have not let my wife leave the house that day,” Nick Beaton told CTV News’ Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme on Tuesday.

Beaton is among those asking why the province didn’t use its emergency alert system to blast out a warning that the attacker was still on the loose.

The RCMP issued warnings about the attacker on Twitter and Facebook, but no emergency alert was sent out. These alerts, typically used for Amber Alert child abductions, notify an individual’s cell phone to ensure they know of an ongoing emergency. They have also been used in some provinces to reinforce the importance of physical distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They can use the alert to warn us about COVID and [to] separate, and I believe that’s important. But what’s more important [is that] there was like 19 lives lost,” Beaton told LaFlamme.

Officials have been repeatedly pressed on why they didn’t use the system at any point during the 12-hour rampage, which left at least 22 dead across at least 15 different crime scenes, in addition to the perpetrator. During a Monday press conference, RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather seemed to think there had been an emergency alert issued during the attack before a colleague told him only social media channels had been utilized.

“We have relied on Twitter, as my colleague said, because of the instantaneous manner that we can communicate. We’re aware that we have thousands of followers in Nova Scotia and felt that it was a way, a superior way to communicate this ongoing threat,” Leather said.

However, Twitter is not universally used, meaning many Nova Scotians were left in the dark about the horrifying rampage unfolding around them.

“RCMP were tweeting, I don’t know, I don’t use Twitter and I don’t know anyone that does use Twitter,” Beaton said.

The RCMP also noted their communication in a Tuesday press release, in which they called the event “unprecedented.”

“As soon as we learned that the suspect was possibly in a replica police cruiser and wearing what appeared to be an RCMP uniform, we immediately informed the public. Nova Scotians can rest assured that the RCMP is committed to keeping the public informed and instructing Nova Scotians on how to protect themselves from threats to public safety,” the release read.

Jack Rozdilsky, a professor of disaster and emergency management at York University, explained Tuesday on CTV News Channel that there are four steps involved with issuing an emergency alert, the first of which is a government agency making a decision to issue the notification.

When pressed on Monday as to why such a request wasn’t made, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil simply said it was because he wasn’t asked to do so.

“Well [the Emergency Management Office] needs to be ordered to put that out. Public Health ordered us to put the COVID one out, we were happy to support them. We have people in and ready. But we were not asked to put out that alert on the weekend,” McNeil said.

“I can tell you, I’m not going to second-guess why someone or the organization did what they did or didn’t do at this moment in time. This was an active environment, I can tell you. Deaths, gunfire. Let’s give them an opportunity as an organization to explain that to you.”

Rozdilsky said authorities have to carefully weigh the pros and cons when it comes to issuing such an alert. He explained that bad information can be very dangerous during an active situation, and that multiple alerts during an already stressful incident can fatigue those on the receiving end.

“When we think about emergency alerts, it’s more of an art than a science, and we still have things to learn about how to make the systems most effective,” Rozdilsky said.

Still, Beaton believes such an alert could have made all the difference for his wife, because he never would have let her leave their house had he known the situation was ongoing.

“Me and Kristen laid in bed the night before and watched him down in Portapique, raining terror on people. We woke up that morning…we just assumed it was over,” he said.

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