The Department of National Defence is changing how the military handles search and rescue calls following the tragic death of a teenage Labrador snowmobiler.

Military officials will no longer wait for a call back from anyone needing assistance in a search.

The move follows the death of Burton Winters, 14. He was found dead on sea ice three days after he went missing at the end of January.

The military has been heavily criticized for its slow response to help in the search.


Defence Minister Peter MacKay says search and rescue protocols will be changed. (CBC )

Defence Minister Peter MacKay stressed Thursday that ground search and rescue is a provincial responsibility.

But he said the "amended protocol" will help Canadian Forces provide additional assistance. The new rules are in effect in Newfoundland and Labrador immediately, and will be introduced across the country.

"The military will provide an additional layer of due diligence," MacKay said.

"Military officials will now proactively call back the lead agencies to ascertain whether Canadian Forces assets are still requested."

The defence minister acknowledged it is "obviously" a difficult time for the family and friends of Burton Winters and the people of Makkovik.

"I know that today’s announcement does not bring closure to their suffering," MacKay said. "But I do hope that it reassures the community that professionals are always evaluating and working together and that our search and rescue capabilities are always looking for ways to improve."

But MacKay rejected increasing military search and rescue capabilities in Labrador beyond the two Griffon helicopters currently in the region.

"The Canadian Forces are constantly looking at their posture when it comes to search and rescue assets," he noted. "We have determined that the current posture is one which fits the needs and the availability."

When the military was initially called the morning after Winters was reported missing, weather and then mechanical problems kept two Griffon helicopters in Goose Bay grounded. Civilian choppers joined the search.

Under the previous protocol, the onus then reverted to the searchers to call the military a second time. In the Winters case, that didn’t happen until more than 48 hours after the boy was reported missing.

Winters was found dead on the ice a day after that. He had walked 19 kilometres from his abandoned snowmobile.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue, who represents Labrador in the House of Commons, said he spoke with Winters’s family to inform them of the protocol change.