Search and rescue investigation concludes public hearing phase

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The ground search and rescue investigation could have national ramifications, expert Richard Smith said. (Bay of Islands Volunteer Search and Rescue)

The final week of the Newfoundland and Labrador Ground Search and Rescue Inquiry’s public hearings detailed a system hampered by slow bureaucracy and a lack of resources, despite the efforts of highly trained volunteers.

The investigation heard from experts in ground search and rescue, sea search and rescue, aviation and mental health, who made recommendations for the final report of the investigation, which is due on November 30.

Experts were almost unanimous in suggesting that the provincial government provide more funding for search and rescue operations.

“We hope the commission sees an opportunity to get government support, hopefully a little better,” said Harry Blackmore, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association. .

Blackmore submitted a bid asking the province to increase funding for ground search and rescue operations from $ 91,000 per year to $ 2 million for two years, and to $ 1 million per year thereafter.

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

“Exhausted” volunteers

Currently, the province’s 25 volunteer search and rescue teams are forced to fundraise to maintain necessary equipment, maintain infrastructure and cover other costs. Blackmore said the association often loses volunteers who are exhausted from fundraising.

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

“This hearing and this investigation have national ramifications,” he said.

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

“It’s detrimental to our retention, the burden placed on members of having to fundraise all the time,” he said.

The investigation was sparked by the death in 2012 of Burton Winters, who got lost while snowmobiling on the ice floes outside of Makkovik. RCMP said after his snowmobile got stuck, Burton walked 19 kilometers before succumbing to the freezing conditions.

Burton Winters was last seen in the coastal Labrador community of Makkovik at 1:30 pm on January 29, 2012. His body was found on February 1. (Submitted by the Winters family)

Paulette Rice, Winters’ mother, said she would trust the province’s search and rescue volunteers for her life, but need more funding to do their jobs.

“I don’t think such an essential program should go to the effort of just getting the money to try and help other people,” she said at the end of the hearings on Friday. “They need more support and I hope they get it.”

Communication and collaboration

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

In Canada, maritime and aeronautical search and rescue is managed by the federal government through Joint Rescue Coordination Centers, while ground search and rescue is the responsibility of each province and territory. However, Joint Rescue Coordination Centers are responsible for ground search and rescue operations when resources are available.

In the case of Burton Winters, the JRCC in Halifax had resources available, but did not send a helicopter to help with the search for two days after his disappearance. Instead, the RCMP and ground search and rescue volunteers used private helicopters and an airplane.

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

On Wednesday, Merv Wiseman, former search and rescue coordinator at the Maritime Rescue Sub-Center in St. John’s and a member of the Concerned Citizens for Search and Rescue, called the division between maritime search and rescue and terrestrial.

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

In September, the ground search and rescue investigation held a week-long hearing in Makkovik into the search for Burton Winters. Left to Right: Commission Counsel Geoff Budden, Winter’s Grandmother Edna Winters, Aunt Joan Winters of Winters, Winters’ Mother Paulette Rice, Family Lawyer Tom Williams, Stepmother by Winters Natalie Jacque and Commissioner James Igloliorte. (Heidi Atter / CBC)

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

“Everyone is 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 with each other,” she said.

“I would like to recommend that these parties all come together and work together, communicate together, for the best result, so that people do not have the same result that we had to face.”

The public hearing phase of the inquiry is now complete, but the commission will continue to hold consultations, including sessions in Hopedale, Cartwright and Nain.

The draft recommendations are expected to be published on November 2.

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