N.L. ground search and rescue loses good people to fundraising burnout, says director

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ST JOHN'S, Antigua And Barbuda — Newfoundland and Labrador's volunteer-run ground search and rescue services need an infusion of cash and a few paid positions, according to testimony Monday from the man who oversees much of the system.

Harry Blackmore is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association, which oversees and co-ordinates about 26 ground search and rescue teams across the province. Those teams are made up of about 700 trained, dedicated volunteers — himself included — he told a provincial inquiry into ground search and rescue services Monday.

They have to rely on grants and constant fundraising to stay trained, pay for radio licences and acquire equipment, Blackmore said to a room full of lawyers and first responders in St. John's.

"We lose good, trained professionals due to burnout from fundraising," he testified. He recommended Monday that government commit to regular, sustainable funding totalling $2 million a year for two years, and then $1 million a year thereafter.

That money could pay for a co-ordinator, two training officers, equipment upgrades and regular fees like radio licences, he said, adding that it would also be used for training for mental health emergencies, as those calls are becoming more frequent.

Newfoundland and Labrador's Public Inquiry Respecting Ground Search and Rescue for Lost and Missing Persons is in downtown St. John's this week for its last round of community consultations. Those meetings began Sept. 7 in Makkovik, N.L., a small community along Labrador's north coast, and they end on Friday. Commissioner James Igloliorte, a retired provincial court judge from the Labrador community of Hopedale, will deliver his final report on Nov. 30.

The inquiry was announced in 2018, four years after 14-year-old Burton Winters froze to death on the sea ice near Makkovik in January 2012. The teenager's snowmobile had gotten stuck and he had walked 19 kilometres across the ice in search of help or shelter before he collapsed.

It took searchers three days to find him and they had to ask several times for military air assistance.

Lawyer Geoff Budden began Monday's session by saying the inquiry was now listening to organizers and officials about what needs to be done to improve search and rescue services in the province. Blackmore spoke for much of the day, discussing the evolution of the province's ground and rescue services.

Now retired, he estimated he volunteers between 40 and 60 hours a week co-ordinating, organizing and planning with the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association. He said he estimates volunteer search and rescue members collectively contribute 125,000 hours per year — about $3.1 million if their time was valued at $20 an hour.

When asked what would happen to the province's ground search and rescue services if he got sick or died, Blackmore said his next in command, Roger Goobie, would likely step up. Budden pointed out that Goobie has a full-time job and probably couldn't put in the same amount of unpaid hours as Blackmore does. The other volunteers with the proper knowledge and skills likely couldn't volunteer the same amount of hours either, Budden said.

That's why a paid position would be a big help, Blackmore told the inquiry.

The province's reliance on volunteers is the norm, he said, noting that only Alberta and British Columbia have paid positions overseeing search and rescue services. "There's no one out there right now getting any great amount of money," Blackmore said.

British Columbia's service is called Emergency Management BC, he said, adding that the province is home to the highest number of rescues in the country. He noted, however, that in B.C., many of the rescue missions are for people whose whereabouts are known or at least roughly known.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, rescuers are often also trying to locate missing people in addition to bringing them home safely. For example, the ground search and rescue team in the western Newfoundland town of Deer Lake was involved in the recent search for two fishermen — Marc Russell and Joey Jenkins — who went missing off the southeastern coast of Labrador on Sept. 17, he said.

Russell and Jenkins have not yet been found.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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