Tuesday, February 28, 2012


The death of Burton Winters was a tragedy. As a father of three boys, I could not imagine the pain and devastation of loosing a child. My heart goes out to his family.

Throughout the reporting of the numerous vigils to memorialize Burton and demand improvements  to Search and Rescue coverage in Labrador, a number of questions raced through my mind. I wanted to discuss them but felt the time was not right.

With Social Media, Open-Line Shows and the closure of the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John's, a hyper-sensativity enveloped the issue. Our government and the public readily assign blame based on few facts and rhetoric. 

As evidenced in the sensational Febreez discourse of a few weeks ago, people have no hesitation to pounce, it  is the norm. Issues explode in seconds. Thousands of people know others thoughts with the press of a return key.  Folks participate in the discussion, emotion rules the day and the facts trickle out in between heated discussions. Waiting for the facts, the big picture...that is passe.

Winters was reported missing on Jan. 29. Military aircraft arrived in the search area two days later. Winters' body was recovered on the sea ice near Makkovik on Feb. 1. Searchers said Winters walked about 19 kilometres before he died.

Searchers said Winters walked about 19 kilometres before he died. His body was recovered on the sea ice near Makkovik on Feb. 1, three days after he was reported missing.  The debate over SAR was fueled by the fact that Military aircraft only joined search two days after he went missing.

What I wondered from the first day that this story was reported was, why a 14 year old would be out in a blizzard on his own on a snow machine with out a GPS. It was a question that I agonized over asking. In fact, I had that discussion and debate with a number of friends.

Yesterday, the issue came up for discussion on CBC Radio's On The Go. After listening to the host, and a call to the show from Mervin Wisemen, I decided to brush off an old draft of a post I typed a while ago.

The loss of Burton Winters has become a rallying call for better SAR coverage. The fact that the weather created poor visibility -  hampering the search for another day, that Air Force equipment at the Goose Bay Base was not functioning, that it was a ground search coordinated by the RCMP (with contracted air assets including a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft) and by the second day it was a recovery mission, seem to have been glazed over. As well, searchers used forward-looking infrared equipment, but it was still like looking for a needle in a haystack. The truth is that even the locals thought the boy had gone through the ice, divers and special photographic equipment had been sent up to the coast to assist with the recovery.

For all intensive purposes this was a search and recovery mission, yet the discourse that has followed seems to argue that this child's death could have been prevented, if SAR had done it's job.

There appears to be a number of problems related to communications and coordination, but I am not sure that pointing the blame at the federal government is fair. The fact is that there is plenty of blame to go around in terms of communications, request for assistance and the coordination of the search.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the unfortunate tragic death of a 14 year old, all alone on the ice flows off the coast of Labrador during a blizzard could have been prevented.

The protocols and coordination policies need to be reviewed to determine what could have been done better. That goes for SAR, Department of Defense, The RCMP, the province and parents who allow children to use equipment designed for adults.

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