Retired constable recounts investigation to spotty radio service, lack of resources posed challenge in mass shooting in Nova Scotia

Jeff West, a retired RCMP staff sergeant who was a critical incident commander, testifies at the inquiry into the Nova Scotia mass shootings, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on May 18 .Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

A constable who led much of the response to the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia testified Wednesday that spotty radio service and the lack of an RCMP helicopter were among equipment issues that hampered manhunt.

A public inquiry into the April 18-19, 2020 killings is now hearing from senior RCMP officers about command decisions made during the 13-hour rampage by a gunman who drove a replica police cruiser and killed 22 people.

Jeff West, a staff sergeant who retired last year, was the critical incident commander from 1:19 a.m. to 10:20 a.m. on April 19, based at a fire station just east of Portapique, where the murders began.

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It was more than two hours after he first received the call at his home in Halifax that he arrived at the command post in Great Village, Nova Scotia.

When he arrived at the fire station to take command, West said he was initially unable to broadcast to the police network from his portable radio. It took four minutes before he received a signal while standing next to a window. He told commission lawyer Roger Burrill that it was concerning that portable radios lacked the power to allow a critical incident commander to announce his presence.

“It’s a problem when you can’t go up,” he testified, adding that the problem was solved once a radio technician arrived at the command post to set up a radio base station.

Kevin Surette, who backed West as staff sergeant on April 19 and has also since retired, testified that poor radio service in crisis situations has been his experience throughout his career as several decades in response to major incidents.

“It’s been a problem in every operation I’ve been on,” he said. “I don’t know the solution, but it needs some kind of investigation.”

The quality of the mapping was also discussed during testimony, as the inquest heard that when West arrived the only map of Portapique was drawn by hand. He testified that a technical officer who arrived later that night brought up a Google map of the area.

According to testimony heard at the inquest, all detachments in the province are supposed to have access to an authorized program called Pictometry, which provides access to high-resolution aerial photographs.

West said he can’t remember if he asked for access to Pictometry mapping. “Are there opportunities for better mapping? Certainly,” he testified.

West also testified that the RCMP helicopter with thermal imaging technology was unavailable due to scheduled maintenance, adding that the helicopter would have been a valuable resource. He said he did not know if the RCMP had a contingency plan in place in case the helicopter was unavailable.

At one point, a supervisor from the RCMP Operational Communications Center in Truro, Nova Scotia called the Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Halifax to ask if the military could send a helicopter to help search for the shooter. The supervisor was informed that the military would not send a helicopter into an active shooter situation.

Retired Staff Sergeant Steve Halliday, the district operations officer at the time, testified Tuesday that the RCMP helicopter was repeatedly unavailable.

“Like any mechanical equipment, there are times when it’s not available for anything,” he said. “The pilot is down, the bird is down…it’s down for routine maintenance, which happens from time to time.”

A provincial plane without thermal imaging capability was provided to the RCMP mid-morning, but Surette said again there were problems communicating with those on board due to radio issues.

Surette said the Department of Natural Resources helicopter radio was not compatible with the law enforcement system, so an unencrypted radio system was used instead.

A key piece of technology available to the RCMP through the Emergency Management Office was the Alert Ready system, which would have allowed the RCMP to send a public warning by cell phone, radio and television throughout the province.

Surette and West both testified that they were unaware of the possibility of sending such notice through the Office of Emergency Management, and both testified that he was “not in the (RCMP) toolbox”.

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