Systemic failure

A tragedy, and we must rise to the occasion

There is no worse pain than losing a child. I watched, read, followed the events of January  29th to February 1st with hope, then sad understanding, and a brief period of hope again before the fateful news broke. I was brought back to a similar experience of my youth when Search and Rescue efforts were unable to locate my uncle after his plane crashed. I remember the numbing feeling when a search and recovery operation switches to a recovery operation.

I am annoyed and disgusted with reading the comment/s/ary questioning why this young man was where he was, doing what he was doing. Skidoos are a way of life up in the north and to suggest that the parents, or Burton himself, had any blame in this is insulting and ignorant of how we live. I took my own first 700km round trip from Goose Bay to Cartwright when I was 13 years old. Unfortunately, accidents and getting lost can happen no matter your experience level or how well prepared you are.

My heartfelt condolences go to the family and to the community

I know, intimately, personally, how heart wrenching it is to have a system fail you – for something to go horribly wrong in (what is expected to be) a well developed system, and result in the loss of a child. To have it fail in one of the most developed countries in the entire world is unbelievably frustrating and agonizingly confusing – “how could this have happened? The first thing you try to do is see what specific point in the system could have been the lynch pin/weakest link, where things went wrong. Something to direct your outrage at. To find something that could have been prevented, not just to bring closure, but also to help prevent others in the future from suffering as you have – as your loved ones have.

I have been advised by family and friends that I should be careful in addressing this topic at this time, so close to everyone’s hearts and minds. So I will understand if by writing this piece there may be some anger directed at me as I know it is still so raw for those involved. It is just that try as I might to write a column on another subject, it is impossible for me not to address this issue now, for writing anything else would be callous.

We expect, as Canadians, to be protected by the systems that we have paid for

Institutions we’ve paid for with our resources and our taxes for so many years.

The majority of times these systems work. But when a system fails you at your most vulnerable, the impact is tremendous – for the person/ family/ community. I’ve considered the timeline of events presented by CBC and the JRCC as well as the roles and responsibilities of the Fire and Emergency Services (FES-NL) and Search and Rescue (SAR) and something seems missing from the wider public debate. I can’t help but feel that there doesn’t seem to be just one single identifiable misstep – it was a failure of the system itself to adequately respond to Burton Winters’ desperate situation.

There can be no doubt about who had the legal and procedural jurisdiction in the case of ground search and rescues – the province. Many people are focused on the fact that the organization in control, the FES-NL, made a call to the JRCC and those services were unavailable due to weather and unserviceable aircraft. This is a valid question: why weren’t those services accessible, considering that on a regional basis there were aircraft available? As per procedure, JRCC advised FES-NL to call back when conditions were better.

One might ask at this point, why did they not call back?

There is clearly a problem with the passive approach to SAR on the federal side, and that’s a valid reason to demand a review of the procedures/policy. However, how difficult would it be to remember to call JRCC back, considering the circumstances? In fact, the choice was actively made “precluding a further request to the Canadian Armed Forces”. The Premier also raised a good point: why wasn’t the call made sooner?

Clearly, if there had been serviceable helicopters in Goose Bay, and if the procedural snafu hadn’t kept them at bay, they would have been on scene much earlier. More choppers in the air would have increased the odds of finding the skidoo faster, and perhaps the tracks in the snow faster. These efforts weren’t helped by the weather or the fact that the system assumed (rightly or wrongly) young Mr. Winters had gone into the water.

I don’t want to point fingers, or seem like I am defending (or attacking) any side in this

People worked hard to bring a positive result to this ordeal on all sides – some of my family in fact – with no ill will whatsoever I’m certain. But there were procedural and communication problems in both jurisdictions that hampered the situation.  There is a Facebook group of almost 25,000 that is calling for the establishment of a SAR command in Labrador. I think this is a noble cause, and I’ve contributed in whatever little way I could.

While I believe increased SAR capacity would go some way in helping future incidents, I can’t help but feel that the same FES-NL/Ground Search and Rescue/Search and Rescue communicational, jurisdictional, and procedural issues need to be addressed first. No matter what top of the line equipment you have on hand, and best-in-the-world staff to run it, you have to have solid systems in place to run a smooth operation.

On the jurisdictional matter, I have a side question. Why is it that when somebody in the north, when they are out on the ice, is considered ground-based? At what time of year is it considered ground-based? I hardly think ice floes or open water are considered provincial jurisdiction, for example. In this case counting over sea ice as federal jurisdiction might have rendered a different response.

I also take serious issue with the political posturing going on

For example, the Marine Rescue Sub-Centre has absolutely no bearing in this whatsoever. NONE. How can one take such a tragedy as this, and apply fed-bashing techniques to support other issues at the expense of peoples’ grief? It is blatant, and I find it gross. The MRSC closure is another issue, and it is one recommended by its own department – not politicians. The MRCC was open, in operation when this tragedy occurred in Labrador and had nothing to do with resolving it. I had no doubt politicians are capable of deflecting blame, but I can’t believe the media in this province would help them out.

If the provincial government demands that something needs to be done to prevent catastrophes like this in the future, it should put its money where its mouth is. There needs to be a province wide system to financially support and properly coordinate GSARs/SARs in all regions, as well as with the federal government. The province needs to develop and share procedures and policies for all scenarios – I looked on their site and they don’t have them (publicly at least).

Sure there’s enough blame to go around, but the province needs to own up to some of it

I have one suggestion that the province can engage in this very spring budget, and they should listen, since there are tens of thousands of voters who want to see tangible action to avert similar disasters in the future. Why not offer a major tax rebate for those who purchase SPOT, satellite phones, GPS or other emergency equipment? Make it essentially free, and have them out in all the ATVs/Skidoos/boats in this province through education programs and legislative spending incentives. This can be done by region/remoteness or by income tax bracket if you’re concerned about the cost of implementation. Our government subsidizes infrastructure (highways etc) and emergency equipment (ambulances/hospitals) in urban areas that save lives; why not take a bold step and do it for other regions?

I recognize there are privacy issues with some of these devices, but there are ways to protect yourself. I’m not saying that we should legislate these devices like seatbelts or airbags into snowmobiles, but it would be one way to provide the affordability of these safety devices in the future.

One final note, to recognize and applaud efforts of the founders and members…

…of the Facebook group The Burton Winters’ Rescue Center IN Labrador.

They have organized a significant campaign to write letters, contact media, inform MPs/MHAs/Ministers at all levels of government. The only unfortunate aspect I find with modern groups such as this, is that there is no way for them to be officially recognized by governments. I find it sad that online groups, and online petitions especially are not accepted by legislatures as valid (except Quebec, and soon to be New Brunswick).

There are grassroots people across Canada, and across this province who would otherwise be unable to sign these petitions without them being available online, but still have the right to petition their concerns to government(s). For those cynical enough to think it’s too easy to forge online names, how easy do you think it is to forge/fluff signatures?

We have a strong movement afoot, and I don’t see momentum slowing on this issue. I believe it’s time for our government(s) to start listening and acting appropriately.

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