Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. search and rescue inquiry report recommends more money, training for 'essential' volunteer groups

A 159-page final report into ground search and rescue found that missions rely heavily on what it called "underfunded" volunteer groups.

Province relies heavily on 'underfunded' volunteers, commissioner finds

The final report into ground search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador emphasized the province's reliance on 'underfunded' volunteer groups. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

The long-awaited inquiry into ground search and rescue in Newfoundland and Labrador is now complete, with its commissioner releasing his recommendations to the public Wednesday.

The 159-page final report looked broadly at the state of rescue operations in the province, noting that missions rely heavily on what it described as underfunded volunteer groups. 

Commissioner James Igloliorte offered 17 recommendations to the provincial government to improve search and rescue services.

They include:

  • Government funding for volunteer search and rescue groups.
  • Increased training for volunteer groups.
  • Increased engagement with families of missing persons.
  • Mental health support for emergency responders and volunteer rescuers.
  • External audits of volunteer search and rescue teams to ensure their operation at a "minimal standard."

The report also recommended the provincial government look at implementing a rule compelling snowmobilers and other "outdoor adventurers" to wear a locator device.

It also called for a review of 911 services "with the goal [of] streamlining the existing process so as to ensure that distress calls are tasked in an optimal manner," and stressed the importance of air support for ground missions.

Several of the 17 recommendations acknowledged the province's reliance on an "aging" volunteer workforce, which often spends much of its time fundraising for supplies.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association, which represents local volunteer rescue groups, receives $200,000 a year from the provincial government — an amount the report says makes up a small portion of its annual expenditures.

"NLSARA is an impressive organization which, through extraordinary effort by a committed membership, carries out essential ground search and rescue services within the [province].… There are, however, reasons to fear that this present situation might not be sustainable," Igloliorte wrote.

He noted that challenges recruiting and retaining members, in addition to the difficulties of raising funding, could lead to burnout among members.

Helicopters 'crucial'

Igloliorte also recommended the province seek an agreement with the federal government for use of Canadian Armed Forces helicopters when required.

"At the present time, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador have no rotary-wing [helicopter] resources, either owned or contracted, capable of operating during darkness or in certain weather conditions," he wrote.

"Helicopter support, at all times of day and night, is often crucial to successful ground search and rescue search outcomes."

The lack of federal helicopters was a prevailing theme during testimony in September, when Igloliorte presided over hearings in Makkovik, the hometown of 14-year-old Burton Winters.

Burton Winters died on sea ice in Labrador in 2012. (CBC )

Burton died in 2012 after his snowmobile became stranded on sea ice. It took rescuers three days to find his body, and his family called for years for an inquiry into the search mission tasked with locating him.

A Canadian Armed Forces witness testified in September that there were a number of federal aircraft in the Atlantic region tasked to search and rescue, but many were not usable. 

That witness also said the federal aircraft were primarily responsible for sea rescues, not land rescues, as in Winters' case.

The Department of National Defence, despite having a Cormorant helicopter stationed in Gander, declined the first assistance request to search for Burton, according to transcripts in the report.

Igloliorte called on the province to ensure "helicopter resources are made available to support ground search and rescue operations in equal priority to their support for aeronautical and marine search and rescue operations." 

John Hogan, minister of justice and public safety, told reporters Wednesday it's too soon to say what the province will do with the recommendations, but said negotiating with Ottawa had emerged as a clear priority.

"Some of those recommendations … talk about working with the federal government. So we have to do that, to see who is responsible for what," he said.

Report a 'relief'

Hogan also acknowledged that the Winters family waited nine years after Burton's death to participate in an inquiry.   

"It took a long time to get to this point," he said. "I'm sure that's upsetting for the family, but maybe a bit of a good news story here today, that it has come to a conclusion."

Natalie Jacque, Burton's stepmother, said despite the stress of the inquiry, the final report brought relief to the family.

"For years we've kind of been pushing so that nothing would happen to anyone else," she said, reached by phone on Wednesday.

"We do feel that hopefully with some recommendations and some positivity toward some change, that hopefully this won't happen again."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn and Chris O'Neill-Yates