Search and Rescue group pleads with province to find it more money

·3 min read
Harry Blackmore, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association, spoke at the public probe into ground search and rescue on Monday. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC - image credit)
Harry Blackmore, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association, spoke at the public probe into ground search and rescue on Monday. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC - image credit)
Eddy Kennedy/CBC
Eddy Kennedy/CBC

The president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association is calling on the provincial government to give the organization substantially more money for its search and rescue efforts.

In a presentation as part of the provincial public inquiry into search and rescue, Harry Blackmore said volunteers are currently forced to spend "significant" time fundraising in order to maintain equipment, complete necessary training and perform necessary operations.

"We lose good trained professionals each year due to burnout from fundraising and other unnecessary time commitments," he said.

Currently, the provincial government gives the association $91,000 a year to help pay for insurance, radio licensing fees, an annual general meeting and other expenses, said Blackmore. The province is also providing a temporary annual grant of $100,000 to help with equipment upgrades.

Blackmore presented a document asking the government to increase its operating grant to $2 million for two years, and then $1 million annually in order to provide the association's teams of volunteers with "sufficient sustainability" to continue operating.

The NLSARA presentation was part of an inquiry into search and rescue operations in Newfoundland and Labrador. 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.

Submitted by Winters family
Submitted by Winters family

The new funding would cover new training and equipment upgrades that could potentially aid in similar search efforts. The NLSARA specifically pointed to communications and mapping equipment, ice rescue equipment and training, rope rescue equipment and training, and all terrain vehicle and snowmobile training.

Blackmore also criticized convoluted procedures for obtaining helicopters for search and rescue missions. He said while the organization is usually able to get a helicopter to aid in search and rescue, the communication process for obtaining one can be lengthy and convoluted — which is less than ideal during an emergency.

"We're not phoning just for the sake of a helicopter, we're phoning because we're out there looking for somebody," he said.

Stressed out

The NLSARA would also hire two full time training officers to provide a range of training, including equipment operations, safety, first aid and mental health first aid.

Blackmore said about 50 per cent of search and rescue missions in Newfoundland and Labrador are focused on people experiencing a mental health crisis — people who often don't want to be found.

He said the organization also does an "awful lot" of searching for people who have expressed thoughts of suicide.

"Those are the hardest searches we do," he said,

The teams of volunteers do not always find those individuals in time.

Due to the often stressful and potentially traumatic nature of some search and rescue operations, volunteers also need mental health assistance, said Blackmore.

He said the organization gets help from the police and Salvation Army, and has brought in speakers from local mental health associations to give presentations on coping with stress. The organization also uses the provincial employee assistance program.

"The stress part of it is very real," he said.

Blackmore said the number of search and rescue operations is up, an increase he partially attributes to a rise in tourism in remote locations.

He said there have been four incidents this year involving people from out of province hiking near the East Coast Trail.

The NLSARA currently has about 26 teams and more than 700 volunteers, said Blackmore.

Although the provincial and federal governments do provide tax credits to search and rescue volunteers, Blackmore said the time and financial commitment still prove to be untenable for some volunteers, especially since many of whom already have full time jobs.

"We do what we got to do, but we do lose some of our people due to [the fact] that they're fed up selling tickets, or selling burgers, or whatever."

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