As an active shooter was on the loose in Nova Scotia Sunday morning, the U.S. Consulate in Halifax sent emailed alerts to its citizens warning of the danger at a time when the RCMP was using Twitter to communicate the news.
Questions have been raised as to why no emergency alerts were transmitted to Nova Scotians’ cellphones and television screens as a rampage was underway that would leave 23 dead, including the gunman.
When Premier Stephen McNeil was asked Wednesday why the province didn’t issue an emergency alert based on the Mounties’ Twitter feed, he said emergency officials couldn’t act until the RCMP had prepared an approved message.
“That’s the protocol in place when it comes to the (Emergency Management Office),” the premier told a news conference.
“The lead agency is the one that has to put the message together. We would not go from what’s happening on Twitter …. No message was received, even though EMO had reached out a number of times throughout the morning to the RCMP.”
At a news conference Wednesday, RCMP Chief Supt. Chris Leather said police received a 911 call of a firearms incident in Portapique, N.S., at 10:26 p.m. Saturday. They soon determined there had been a homicide but did not realize the suspect had left the area they were searching until 8:02 the next morning, he said.
He said the EMO contacted the RCMP at 10:15 a.m. to ask about sending an emergency message, and police were crafting a message when the suspect was killed almost two hours later.
Marcia R. Seitz-Ehler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate, said the consulate’s emailed alert warning of a shooter in Portapique and advising people to remain at home with their doors locked was drawn from information on the Nova Scotia RCMP Twitter account.
“It is our protocol — when emergencies occur — to alert U.S. citizens in the area to the situation,” she said. She did not immediately respond to an inquiry about what time the U.S. alert was sent. The first RCMP tweet about an active shooter was transmitted at 8:02 a.m. Sunday.
Residents of some of the five communities where the killer struck have said they would have changed their behaviour had an alert been sent.
David Matthews was walking with his wife in Wentworth Sunday morning when they heard a “pop,” which they said sounded like it could be a gunshot, or perhaps just a car backfiring.
Shortly after the Matthews returned home, their phone started ringing with warnings from friends that there was an active shooter on the loose in the neighbourhood. They later learned that a fellow walker was gunned down that morning on a road nearby.
“In my mind, there should have been some provincial alert … (that) you’ve got to be careful, because there’s an active shooter in the area,” Matthews told The Canadian Press.
On Tuesday, police confirmed the rampage had left 22 victims, including neighbours, a family of three, a teacher, two nurses, two correctional officers and an RCMP officer.
Leather said investigators have confirmed that 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman, who was killed by police Sunday, acted alone. He said investigators are still trying to determine whether anyone assisted the gunman leading up to the incident.
The RCMP have said the suspect at one point was driving a vehicle that was “identical” to an RCMP cruiser and he was wearing an “authentic” RCMP uniform. Police have said the mock cruiser and uniform helped the shooter escape detection.
Leather said Wednesday police were not aware that the suspect was dressed as an RCMP officer and driving the mock cruiser until some time between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Sunday. He said that key information came from a witness.
The RCMP have said that after arriving in Portapique they discovered several casualties inside and outside of a home. Some homes in the area had been set on fire and police confirmed that victims have been found inside some of these buildings.
The search for the shooter continued through the night and into Sunday as police tracked the suspect through several small communities in northern Nova Scotia, including Wentworth, Debert and Shubenacadie, where several victims were found.
Police say the suspect shot people he knew, killed others at random and had planned the massacre.
“Our thoughts are with all of the victims’ families and we are particularly mindful of families who have not yet received confirmation that their loved ones were involved,” the RCMP said in a statement Tuesday.
“This is an unprecedented incident that has resulted in incredible loss and heartbreak for countless families and loved ones.”
Wortman, a Halifax-based denturist originally from New Brunswick, was fatally shot by police at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., around noon on Sunday.
There are 16 crime scenes spread over a 90-kilometre distance. A total of five structures were set on fire, though the exact sequence of events remains unclear.
The Canadian military has been called in to help the Nova Scotia RCMP investigate one of the largest mass murders in the country’s history.
The military issued a statement saying it has provided personnel, modular tents, lights, tables, chairs and generators to a number of locations in the province.
Photos from Portapique, N.S., show a large military truck and a number of other smaller vehicles parked along the entrance to Portapique Beach Road, where the shooting rampage started late Saturday.
Michael MacDonald and Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press