A year after tragedy, search-and-rescue doubts persist
Death of Burton Winters led to some improvements, but concerns remain
The tragic death of a Labrador teen lost on the ice one year ago sparked some changes to search and rescue procedures, but some continue to question whether it’s enough.
Randy Edmunds, the Liberal MHA for Torngat Mountains, was one of the people who scoured the area surrounding Makkovik for 14-year-old Burton Winters.
He’s not convinced the concerns of people in the town have been allayed.
"It has to be hard on the family, but they still maintain they want to see what went wrong fixed, and the reason they want this so badly is because they don't want to see another family go through this," Edmunds said.
Newfoundland and Labrador Emergency Services Minister Kevin O’Brien, says a review found that the status quo — save for some changes already made — is sufficient going forward.
"The review found that we're doing things right — that the partners involved are well tuned to ground search and rescue," O’Brien said. "Sometimes the outcome is not what we want it to be, we'd like to be, all of the time. But that's not the way the world runs."
In Makkovik, however, people remain unconvinced, as they continue to deal with the scar left by last year’s tragedy.
Key changes, 1 year later
Two key changes have been made since Burton Winters died on the ice near Makkovik.
Soon after the tragedy, the Newfoundland and Labrador government spent more than $500,000 on 26 thermal imaging cameras to be used by search teams across the province.
One of the units is stationed in Makkovik.
"It has limitations — it cannot see through objects, or snowbanks, or thick snowstorms," said Barry Andersen, the local ground search and rescue team leader in the coastal Labrador town.
"It’s not perfect, but it’s a great tool."
Newfoundland and Labrador search volunteers had the equipment on their wish list to government for years.
Harry Blackmore, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association, says the cameras are a welcome addition to their toolbox.
He says the cameras give searchers a capability they didn’t have before.
"It won't tell you exactly what it is, but it will let you know there's something there, and then you send your teams out to investigate," Blackmore said.
He says ground search and rescue teams in the province handle between 120 and 140 calls a year — about one every three days.
Other than the new cameras, there has been only one big change in the past year: a change to the "call back" protocol.
"The only thing I can report that has happened is that JRCC [the rescue co-ordination centre], through the federal system, has said they would follow up to make sure that the calls are closed on the end," Blackmore said.
"But I thought that was already there, personally. But that's the only major thing that we've seen, that has changed in the system itself."
That was a major source of controversy last year, blamed for the slow response to get searchers in the air.
Military officials used to wait for a call back from anyone needing assistance in a search. That's changed.
Blackmore stresses the importance of the province and feds working more closely together.
"Big key issue for us is to make sure this is a seamless system … to make sure what happened with Burton doesn't happen again. When phone calls are made, they're followed up, to make sure that everything is responding the way it should respond."
He says he thinks there is room for improvement.
"The people that are in charge in each division need to work closer together."
Painful anniversary in Makkovik
In Makkovik, memories of those days are still fresh.
Last week, as the painful anniversary approached, teachers had students each write a letter to Winters — a letter they'll burn during a fire at a community vigil.
Eric White, Winters's friend and cousin, thinks of him every day.
"Weird, funny, lovable — that's pretty much the only words," he said. "Brave, too."
After Winters went missing last January, a massive ground search launched immediately.
But a search from the air took days because of problems with weather, mechanical problems with military aircraft, and because of search and rescue policies.
Since the tragedy, the Labrador teen’s family and people throughout the province have been calling for a public inquiry and pushing for improvements to search and rescue.
The province has brushed those calls aside, however, and the inquiry hasn’t happened
Still, beyond the thermal imaging camera, and the call-back protocol, the search team also has personal satellite transponders to lend to people who are going on snowmobile trips. People are taking them — and in a couple of cases, have used them.
RCMP Cpl. Kimball Vardy says parents are also taking a strong role in trying to prevent another tragedy.
"A lot of the parents are talking to their kids now about when they go off, when they go off on skidoo, to say where they're going, tell them where they're going, who they're going with," Vardy said. "And when they're going to be back."
St. John’s East MP Jack Harris is less sure that everything is running as smoothly as it could.
"I think there's been some changes in the protocols, but I don't think it's been investigated, at least in a public way, to the point where there's a comfort level there that the role of the province, the role of the RCMP, the role of emergency services in dealing with this, that there's a comfort or a confidence level in the public's mind that there should be," Harris said.
Harris wants the Canadian Forces to put a greater emphasis on search and rescue throughout the country.
That includes increasing resources to cut response times — adding primary search assets like Cormorant helicopters.
CFB Goose Bay did get a third Griffon helicopter, one that was brought back from Afghanistan. That means there's a better chance a Griffon will be available, if needed, in the future.
Back in St. John's, Blackmore says one thing has changed, as a result of public pressure.
"I think if you call for any extra resources, where everything has been in such turmoil over the last year, I don't think any asset would be turned down, unless it was totally, drastically unavailable," he said.
"Because nobody wants this to ever happen again."