The federal government has a new protocol for assisting the provinces in ground search and rescue (SAR) cases. It is a direct result of the investigation into the SAR response in the case of 14-year-old Burton Winters.
Burton froze to death on the sea ice near Makkovik, after running into trouble on his snowmobile. His body was found three days after he was declared missing.
Under the new protocol, the military will proactively call back provincial search leaders to see if federal SAR aircraft are still required in the case of an extended search. In Burton’s case, it would have meant federal aircraft would likely have been deployed sooner to assist in the search.
Burton’s death had prompted a series of rallies by provincial citizens demanding a better SAR service from all levels.
The review of the case involved provincial Fire and Emergency Services, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, provincial Department of Justice and members from the federal Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax.
The announcement of the new SAR protocol for call-backs was made by Defence Minister Peter MacKay and MP Peter Penashue, minister of intergovernmental affairs, by way of a teleconference with reporters about 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
The phone-in was just prior to the two heading into question period at the House of Commons in Ottawa.
While the report from the review of the Winters case was to be made available later in the day, the document was not available as of press time.
The federal announcement followed a day of discussion of SAR in the provincial House of Assembly.
During that session, a resolution was introduced by Liberal MHA for Torngat Mountains, Randy Edmunds, calling for government to strengthen its SAR capabilities and facilities in the province.
In addressing the House, Edmunds had requested an investigation into the response in the Winters case by provincial and federal SAR personnel, “including their co-ordination and their communications.”
“In the Burton Winters case, something went wrong, and if this is protocol and this is normal then it needs to be fixed,” he said.
Having supported the motion, Premier Kathy Dunderdale said she wants to see the federal government reverse its decision to close the marine rescue sub-centre in St. John’s.
She also said she’s satisfied the provincial portion of the search and rescue system is adequate, but said it is under review.
“We will continue to look for ways to improve services in search and rescue in our province,” she said.
On March 2, the provincial government announced it will spend $510,000 on thermal imaging cameras for search and rescue teams.
Meanwhile, provincial Liberal and NDP members have put forward expanded cellphone coverage as another potentially critical lifesaving tool.
Asked Thursday about SAR assets at 5 Wing Goose Bay, MacKay made no commitment to adding new SAR assets at the base.
As for the new SAR protocol, it is now in place in this province and is in the process of being brought in across the country.