Search and rescue inquiry wraps up public hearings phase

·4 min read
The inquiry into ground search and rescue could have national ramifications, said expert Richard Smith. (Bay of Islands Volunteer Search and Rescue - image credit)
The inquiry into ground search and rescue could have national ramifications, said expert Richard Smith. (Bay of Islands Volunteer Search and Rescue - image credit)
Bay of Islands Volunteer Search and Rescue
Bay of Islands Volunteer Search and Rescue

The final week of the public hearings for the inquiry into ground search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador detailed a system impeded by sluggish bureaucracy and a lack of resources, despite the efforts of highly-skilled volunteers.

The inquiry heard from experts in ground search and rescue, marine search and rescue, aviation and mental health, who offered recommendations for the inquiry's final report, which is due Nov. 30.

The experts were nearly unanimous in suggesting that the provincial government offer more funding to search and rescue operations.

"We hope that the commission will see the opportunity to have government hopefully support us a bit better," said Harry Blackmore, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association.

Blackmore presented a submission asking that the province increase funding for ground search and rescue operations from $91,000 a year to $2 million for two years, and $1 million annually afterwards.

"It is an essential service. Search and rescue is an emergency," he said.

Volunteers 'burnt out'

Currently, the province's 25 teams of search and rescue volunteers are forced to fundraise in order to maintain necessary equipment, keep up infrastructure, and cover other costs. Blackmore said the association often loses volunteers who are burnt out by fundraising.

Alberta ground search and rescue expert Richard Smith reiterated Blackmore's concerns, and said a lack of funding is an issue for ground search and rescue organizations nationally, and the public inquiry has the potential to change that.

"This hearing and inquiry have national ramifications," he said.

Garry Dalrymple, a Bay of Islands search and rescue coordinator, said the need to fundraise can also deter young people from joining if they are already busy with school or work.

"It is detrimental to our retention, the amount of burden that is put on members to have to fundraise all the time," he said.

The inquiry was prompted by the 2012 death of Burton Winters, who became lost while snowmobiling on sea ice outside Makkovik. The RCMP said after his snowmobile got stuck, Burton walked 19 kilometres before he succumbed to the freezing conditions.

Submitted by Winters family
Submitted by Winters family

Paulette Rice, Winters' mother, said while she would trust the province's search and rescue volunteers with her life, they need more funding to do their job.

"I don't think such an essential program should be trying hard as they do just to get money to try to help other people," she said at the end of the hearings on Friday. "They need more support and I hope they do get it."

Communication and collaboration

A theme throughout the public hearings, which began in Makkovik in early September, was the need for better communications and collaboration between the various agencies, government departments and organizations involved in search and rescue.

In Canada, marine and aeronautical search and rescue are handled by the federal government through Joint Rescue Coordination Centres, while ground search and rescue is the responsibility of individual provinces and territories. However, Joint Rescue Coordination Centres are tasked with ground search and rescue operations when assets are available.

In the case of Burton Winters, the JRCC in Halifax had assets available, but did not send a helicopter to aid in the search for two days after he went missing. The RCMP and ground search and rescue volunteers instead used private helicopters and a plane.

Lt.-Col. James Marshall defended the decision not to send a helicopter as in keeping with the policy of the Department of National Defence, but also apologized to the family, saying more could have been done sooner.

On Wednesday, Merv Wiseman, a former search and rescue coordinator with the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John's and member of the Concerned Citizens for Search and Rescue, called the divide between marine and ground search and rescue "artificial."

He called for a memorandum of understanding which would allow ground search and rescue teams to mobilize JRCC assets during an emergency such as the search for Burton Winters.

Heidi Atter/CBC
Heidi Atter/CBC

Edna Winters, Burton's grandmother, pleaded for better cooperation and communication between the parties involved in search and rescue, and called for more resources for Northern Labrador.

"Everyone is all playing in the same sandbox, but working in different corners; working with different policies and guidelines, working for the same goal, but not really communicating to each other," she said.

"I would like to recommend that these parties all come together and work together, communicate together, for the best outcome, so that people don't have the same outcome that we had to face."

The public hearings phase of the inquiry has now concluded, but the commission will continue to hold consultations, including sessions in Hopedale, Cartwright and Nain.

Draft recommendations are set to be released on Nov. 2.

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