The president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association says he's happy about a massive increase in funding included as part of the 2022 provincial budget — but he hopes it isn't a one-time deal.
The new funding, which includes $1 million from the budget and $775,000 provided since last fall, is substantially more than the $191,000 the province has given to the volunteer organization in previous years.
NLSARA president Harry Blackmore said the money will go toward several initiatives, including new training for volunteers, much-needed equipment upgrades and creating five new search and rescue teams in Labrador.
"Overall, I'm pleased with the money. Is there enough? Yes, for now," said Blackmore. "I just hope that government will come through in the second or third year."
The new government funding comes in response to the recommendations from the Inquiry into Ground Search and Rescue for Lost and Missing Persons in Newfoundland and Labrador last fall. The inquiry was established to make improvements in search and rescue missions after Makkovik teenager Burton Winters froze to death on sea ice in 2012.
A central theme of the inquiry was the lack of resources in Labrador, and Blackmore said adding new teams will save time during search and rescue emergencies.
The inquiry's final report, released last December, included 17 recommendations, several of them focused on improving conditions for NLSARA volunteers. Blackmore said the association is currently setting up meetings with the Department of Justice to review those recommendations.
"We are committed to working with our partners to strengthen search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador, and we will continue to work on how best to implement the inquiry recommendations," Justice Minister John Hogan said last week in the House of Assembly. "I want to thank NLSARA for its continued partnership in this area."
Last October, during a presentation to the inquiry, Blackmore pleaded for more resources to alleviate fundraising pressure on the province's approximately 700 search and rescue volunteers.
"We lose good trained professionals each year due to burnout from fundraising and other unnecessary time commitments," he said at the time.
On Thursday, Blackmore said the new funding won't entirely eliminate the need to fundraise, but it will alleviate that pressure on the province's 26 search and rescue teams.
Funding to go towards equipment, training
During the inquiry, NLSARA tabled a document requesting $2 million in funding annually for two years to upgrade aging equipment, and $1 million per year afterwards for training and equipment maintenance.
That training includes everything from first aid to mock search and rescue missions to piloting a drone. Blackmore said the organization is also in talks with Eastern Health to provide more mental health resources for volunteers, who often encounter traumatic situations during search and rescue operations.
"We don't find everybody alive, but at least we can bring them home," he said. "Sometimes … it's hard [for] people, especially when you're not used to it."
While he's pleased with the funding this year, Blackmore said the government hasn't committed to maintaining funding levels in the years to come.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice called this year's funding a "good step" to address ground search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador.
"We are committed to working with our partners, such as NLSARA, to strengthen search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador, and will work with them on any additional funding requests," said the statement.
In the meantime, Blackmore said the funding will be put to good use.
"I'm sure I can spend it three times over, but right now we're going to work on this, make a strategic plan of how we're going to spend it, and help the teams the best way we can."