SAR protocols must change: premier

James McLeod
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Province has made judgement: feds’ response not good enough in case of Burton Winters

Premier Kathy Dunderdale responds to questions from reporters outside the House of Assembly Thursday afternoon. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Premier Kathy Dunderdale said Thursday the province doesn’t need a public inquiry into search and rescue; she’s already made her judgement.

Dunderdale has been facing criticism and calls for a public inquiry in recent months in the wake of Labrador teen Burton Winters, who died earlier this year after getting lost on sea ice on his snowmobile.

Thursday, Dunderdale released all of the correspondence between the provincial government and federal Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

Dunderdale told reporters that after reviewing the letters from MacKay and the timelines in the Burton Winters search, she’s come to some conclusions and she’s not happy.

“We’ve made a judgement. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has made a judgement that we do not accept the explanation given by the federal government, the minister of national defence and JRCC in terms of the way they responded and why they responded that way,” she said. “We think they need to revisit their protocols and when there is a call for humanitarian support in ground search and rescue, that you ought to respond if you’re not deployed in your primary function.”

During the search for Burton, there was a critical period of time when marginal weather conditions meant commercial helicopters couldn’t fly, and ground searchers in Makkovik asked for support from the military.

No military helicopter was sent.

The documents Dunderdale tabled in the House total 27 pages, and include letters back and forth between Kevin O’Brien, minister responsible for fire and emergency services, and MacKay.

In his letters, MacKay explains the decision was made by military dispatchers that Makkovik was too far away from Gander.

He said if a Cormorant was sent to aid in the search, it could not respond to a maritime emergency or a plane crash, which is their primary mission.

“The officer in command of Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) Halifax determined that he could not deploy a Cormorant to Makkovik, some three hours distant from Gander by air one way because it would have left the (Canadian Forces) unable to respond to a SAR incident within the CF primary SAR Mandate,” MacKay wrote in a letter dated May 24.

“While it is true that there were three serviceable Cormorants stationed in Gander on January 30, aircraft availability was only one factor considered by the JRCC.”

MacKay said that there was only one SAR crew on duty at the time, and if it were sent out, it would have taken up to 12 hours to call a second crew in. If there had been an emergency during that 12 hour window, they would have had a tough time responding.

One thing both the province and the federal government seem to agree on is that a public inquiry is unnecessary to get to the bottom of the Burton Winters tragedy.

In an interview broadcast on the CBC, federal regional minister Peter Penashue said that while the federal government would be legally obligated to go along with an inquiry if it was called, he doesn’t think it’s necessary.

Similarly, in a letter to MacKay on Thursday, O’Brien said that the province doesn’t think that an inquiry would turn up any new information.

“There is ample information in the public domain,” O’Brien wrote. “We believe a poor judgement call was made, but that does not on its own warrant an inquiry.

In the House of Assembly, the Liberals have been pushing hard for an inquiry for the past month, and Thursday they were joined by the NDP.

“We have seen many other inquiries in this Province and these include: Wells, Cameron, Lamer, the Ocean Ranger commission. All of these inquiries have produced good recommendations that are providing for a safer environment for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians,” Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said during question period.

“Seeing the benefits that came out of these inquiries and knowing that there is no downside to calling one, why do you continue to refuse to call an inquiry into search and rescue in our Province?”

Michael said that an inquiry would produce recommendations to improve the SAR procedures, and how the different elements of the system deal with each other.

“It is the protocols that I am concerned about and the Premier’s interest in getting them changed,” she said. “A public inquiry with the full involvement of both levels of government and other interested parties could result in the development of fail-safe protocols.”

Twitter: TelegramJames

This is a corrected version

Organizations: Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, Canadian Forces, Halifax CBC NDP Ocean Ranger commission

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Makkovik, Gander

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Recent comments

  • Peter
    May 26, 2012 - 16:18

    No, Angus. I think what the Premier is doing is putting this situation in the hands of those responsible. The feds. She has made the right decision on this matter.

  • Angus Andersen
    May 25, 2012 - 23:29

    Her fellow MHA's don't realize she's ALLOWING SAR, DND, Mackay and all those affiliated with Burton's situation get away with LIES, STALLING TRUTH, HIDING THE TRUTH, and basically saying "ITS OK" to lose a child cause of people not willing to step up to what is RIGHT? HOW can she go day to day with a CHILDS death on her hands and jump both sides of the fence? Wake up MHA's mayors, AngajukKaak and Innu Leaders - WE elected you to represent us and where are you?

  • Jean
    May 25, 2012 - 22:01

    I understand what "Point the Finger" is implying - it will not only be the government who has to answer questions in an inquiry. The family will be under close scrutiny and have a lot of questions to answer as well. Burton's life and behaviour will also be closely examined. It is possible that the Premier is trying to protecting the family from this invasion of their privacy.

  • Point the Finger
    May 25, 2012 - 11:29

    It easy to BLAME!! Everyone is asking what the government is going to do to make sure this doesent happen again. Is anybody asking what that child was doing out on a snowmobile so far out on the ice. I understood it be to be the law that children of his age be supervised while operating snowmobiles. Who was supervising this child and where were they? I dont feel the goverenment is the only one to be answering questions.

  • Cyril Rogers
    May 25, 2012 - 09:46

    According to the information given, Gander had 3 Cormorants available but effectively only one because of a lack of crew. They couldn't take this Cormorant to help rescue Burton Winter and leave nothing available for their primary operations, according to Minister McKay. Since when did primary rescue responsibilities morph into being a part time service? Yes, it has been that way for years but surely there is something wrong with this picture! Why are there not three dedicated crews available in Gander AT ALL TIMES. Why has SAR become a nine to five service? Emergencies are not going to occur at the convenience of SAR, but that appears to be the mindset! One can understand that there are bloated Ministries and bureaucracies in both the federal and provincial ranks relegate SAR to bankers hours has always been, in my mind, negligent at best, and, criminal in terms of the needs of people working or living in the environment off our coast. While this emergency was by no means entirely a federal responsibility, it is incumbent on the feds to provide a dedicated 24-hour service and crews for SAR and, in that regard, Burton Winter was the unfortunate victim of negligence. Furthermore, this tragedy highlights the need for at least one Cormorant crew and machine to be stationed at Goose Bay, given that Gander is close to three hours away. WE need a new TERMS OF UNION that will resolve some of these the longstanding grievances perpetrated on us by successive federal governments. We also need take a hard-nosed but dispassionate approach to Ottawa. Belligerence or hand-wringing will not cut it and we must develop an effective strategy for dealing with the feds as partners in Confederation, not as supplicants!

  • Mike Benson
    May 25, 2012 - 09:22

    The government of Canada has one position which blames the province. The province has a position that blames the federal government. Premier Dunderdale and Minister O'Brien did not dispute the action while the tragedy was unfolding. 4moths later the public outrage remains and NOW the Premier is changing her tune. We are not satisfied with her judgement: WE WANT AN INQUIRY. The government of Canada will be legally bound to testify and release documents as will her government. We don't need her government's judgement: we need a process to get to the FACTS of this tragedy. CALL AN INQUIRY.

  • Ben
    May 25, 2012 - 09:13

    Do we have an inquiry for every death in the province? A guy died in Labrador City because the air ambulance didnt arrive in we need one for this as well? Just to remind those that an inquiry can bring out a lot of things, things that some may not like. Its not just about SAR, its about the practices in the community, should a 14 year old be driving a ski doo so far from home by himself, has anything like this happened before in the community, etc. To me the procedures of SAR need to be looked at and revised. Stop making this a political issue and let the boy RIP.

    • Frank M
      May 25, 2012 - 11:39

      Ben; a few points of clarification are necessary: first the air ambulance was exclusively within the jurisdiction of the NL government, we know where the fault lies. To your issue with a 14 year old being on a snowmobile (13 is the legal age to operate a snowmobile unsupervised) let me put it in these terms for you: would this situation be any less tragic if a 30 year old mother and child were snowmobiling, broke down, and then SAR did not engage to help find them? The issue here is not the age of the snowmobile operator. The issue is red tape and bickering between 2 governments while an individual managed to survive for 19 hours when SAR postponed searching due to red tape. Would you feel different if it was you operating the stricken snowmobile and no one searched for you because of flimsy excuses?

  • Russell Gragg
    May 25, 2012 - 07:25


  • Maureen
    May 25, 2012 - 06:44

    Shame on you. The people of this province wants a inquiry. What are you afraid of? I would think if it was your grandson you would certainly want one, wouldn't you. Burton Winter didn't walk 19km for nothing. He struggled to survive, waiting and hoping for SAR to pick him up. THIS IS DISGUSTING. HOPE YOU'RE SLEEPING AT NIGHT.