‘Something really bad is happening’: How the emergency alert system worked during the 2022 Sask. mass stabbings

The process of issuing an emergency alert is rapid and complex, and public expectation is “extremely high.”

Julia Peterson, Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Editor’s Note: This story contains disturbing details and descriptions of violence and abuse some readers may find upsetting.

MELFORT — As the first week of the coroner’s inquest into the 2022 mass killings in the communities of James Smith Cree Nation and Weldon drew to a close, witnesses shared their insights into the provincewide emergency response.

From Sept. 4, 2022 — when Myles Sanderson killed 11 people and injured 17 others — to Sept. 7 when he died in police custody, many people throughout Saskatchewan got word of what was happening via a series of ever-updating emergency alerts.

High expectations

Mandy Maier works for the Saskatchewan RCMP strategic communications. She told the inquest that some members of her team have now worked on the La Loche school shooting, the Humboldt Broncos bus crash and now these mass killings.

“(We) don’t carry a badge, but we are very committed to the safety of the people in Saskatchewan,” she said.

On Friday morning, she talked the inquest through the process of issuing an emergency alert.

She says, especially since the 2020 shootings in Nova Scotia, the public’s expectations of the emergency alert system have become “extremely high.”

But anybody issuing these alerts has to work quickly, concisely and with incredible precision.

Alerts being sent to cellphones have strict character limits, and the digital ‘voice’ only works well if names and numbers are written in a specific format.

Maier said there are also other “strategic considerations” when it comes to sending an alert.

“There is a high likelihood that a suspect will receive the same emergency alert messages that the public will receive, so we have to be very specific about the information we send,” she said.

The alerting system is complex and sometimes Byzantine, she explained, with “not a lot of guiding principles for emergency alert issuers” and 146 different types of events that can warrant an alert.

Within these categories, only 32 can trigger a “broadcast-immediate” alert, like the ones sent out about the mass killings that interrupted TV and radio broadcasts and played a loud noise on people’s cellphones.

While it is possible to send out alerts about a “dangerous person,” Maier explained that most of the alerts sent out between Sept. 4 and 7 of 2022 were actually categorized as a “civil emergency” — which would usually be used to inform the public about something like a riot.

That’s because the “civil emergency” category can trigger a broadcast-immediate alert, while “dangerous person” cannot. Under the circumstances, with Myles Sanderson likely armed and dangerous and still at large, Maier said the general public needed to be brought into the loop right away.

‘Something really bad is happening’

On Sept. 4, 2022, the Saskatchewan RCMP strategic communications office got a call just before 6:30 in the morning.

“Something really bad is happening,” the on-call support worker heard over the phone. “We need to prepare, potentially, to issue an emergency alert.”

Maier can only describe what happened next as “organized chaos.”

The office scrambled to send out suspect and vehicle descriptions, information about what the public needed to do to say safe, and instructions to call the police with any information.

The third alert sent out that day had a photo of the wrong person — another man with the same name, from the same community, but in no way associated with the mass killings. 

“This was a human error,” Maier explained, and it was corrected later in the day.

“We used the information we had at the time.”

In total, the Saskatchewan RCMP sent out twelve alerts about the evolving situation, and more alerts were issued in Alberta and Manitoba as well.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566), Saskatoon Mobile Crisis (306-933-6200), Prince Albert Mobile Crisis Unit (306-764-1011), Regina Mobile Crisis Services (306-525-5333) or the Hope for Wellness Help Line, which provides culturally competent crisis intervention counselling support for Indigenous peoples (1-855-242-3310).