After an emergency alert, how should people be told it's now safe?

Terry Canning, a vice-president with the Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia, is shown on Tuesday in Halifax following a legislature committee meeting. (Richard Cuthbertson/CBC - image credit)
Terry Canning, a vice-president with the Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia, is shown on Tuesday in Halifax following a legislature committee meeting. (Richard Cuthbertson/CBC - image credit)

A retired firefighter called to testify at a Nova Scotia legislature committee says agencies that issue emergency alerts, such as warnings about a dangerous person on the loose in a community, need to rethink how they subsequently tell the public when it is finally safe.

Terry Canning, a vice-president of the non-profit Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia, made the comments Tuesday at a meeting examining the provincial emergency response system, including the use of emergency alerts.

He pointed to an incident last month in Bible Hill, N.S., when RCMP issued an alert that blared loudly on cellphones about a "dangerous man with a firearm," and urged people to immediately find shelter and lock doors and windows.

Police arrested the man 20 minutes later, but Canning said he only found that out by listening to CBC Radio. He said he worries there were people not on social media or following the news who may have been sheltering in their basements for hours for no reason.

"Somehow, we have to be able to develop a protocol to terminate," Canning said following the committee meeting. "A different type of alert tone, a different type of alert message. Somehow, there's got to be a way to do that. We're in the 21st century, for Pete's sake.

Less intrusive option

In Nova Scotia, alerts sent through television, radio and LTE-connected phones have been issued for missing seniors, armed people being sought by police, illicit drugs that are circulating, and for last year's wildfires in Upper Tantallon on the outskirts of Halifax.

RCMP Staff Sgt. Robert Frizzell, with the force's criminal operations centre, said the current policy is for police to inform the media through a news release once the danger has passed or the situation has been resolved.

Another option would be to send a less intrusive alert, one without the loud sound and more akin to a text message, when the emergency is over. The concern, he said, is that even those could lead to "fatigue" where the public are being inundated with too many notifications.

"That's always a balancing act of trying to make sure that when we use them, they're really, really important, and that we don't overuse them so people kind of ignore them," he said in an interview.

He also notes that when people in a neighbourhood are told to take shelter because there is a dangerous person, officers will tell them face to face when it is safe to leave their homes.

Not on X

Canning said he too shares "grave concerns" that people will tune out if sent too many alerts, but maintained that turning to social media for updates is a bad solution. He notes he doesn't have an account with X, formerly known as Twitter, nor does he intend to get one.

The RCMP's public communication during an emergency has been criticized in the past, notably the force's decision to use Twitter during the mass shooting in Nova Scotia in April 2020 rather than issue an emergency alert.

Since August 2021, when the RCMP was given the ability to send out alerts directly, the Mounties in Nova Scotia have issued 25, according to Glen Byrne, who heads the force's operational support and communications centre.

Paul Mason, executive director of the province's Emergency Management Office, said it's up to the agency behind the alert to determine if subsequent ones are needed, but the practice when an emergency has been resolved is to let people know through social media and other "conventional forms."

Social media, he said, can be useful in supplementing an initial alert and can be speedier, but he urged people to use a "trusted source."