Editor’s note: This story was written by Cindy Ellen Hill, a law and policy writer and attorney in Middlebury.
The culture of the Vermont State Police is the biggest obstacle to its effectiveness, the aunt of a teenager who died on a hiking trail in January told a Senate committee last week. Alternately defensive, accommodating and apologetic, state police and state officials also testified.
The Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs is considering a bill by Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Orleans, calling for a study committee to re-evaluate the role of state police in search and rescue and similar operations. The bill arose after the death of Kathy Duclos’ nephew Levi Duclos, a 19-year-old hiker who died on the Emily Proctor Trail in Ripton after police did not initiate a search until approximately 14 hours after his mother called 911 at 8 p.m. on Jan. 9.
“The state police have a rigid hierarchy that makes it difficult to respond quickly in search and rescue and similar situations. We can mandate changes to procedure but that will not change the culture of the organization,” Kathy Duclos testified.
Acknowledging that the protocol is being revised, Duclos said that leaving state police in control would not insure a timely response.
“My own experience at the trailhead [the morning of Jan. 10] was that I was surrounded by game wardens, federal forest service personnel, dog teams, and they all sat around waiting for orders from the state police to start searching,” Duclos said. “You can mandate the notification of all the organizations you want, but we need to ensure that they are actually used, and used quickly.”
Duclos urged an expansive view for the study committee.
“This study group is crucial and it needs to look way beyond the idea that the VSP simply needs new procedures,” she said. “They need to research search and rescue procedures in other states, federal resources such as those available through FEMA’s National Incident Management System, and use that knowledge to formulate a restructuring of search and rescue assets, responsibilities, procedures and controls in Vermont.”
Duclos also suggested forming a structure for long-term monitoring of effectiveness. “There should be a third-party oversight committee to assess over time how well the new concept is working and to insure that inclusion of all available assets continues into the future, well after this year’s incident begins to fade from memory,” she testified.
State Police Col. Tommy L’Esperance acknowledged the suffering of the Duclos family, and focused on cultural change in the agency. “I apologize to the Duclos family that we are here today,” he said. “I listened carefully when Kathy Duclos talked about culture of the state police, that’s a very important point. We’re getting a lot of feedback that our culture has to change, and that feedback is not unwarranted.”
L’Esperance said state police are seriously reconsidering their relationships with other organizations, not only in regard to search and rescue but also for welfare checks, a reference to the recently settled lawsuit over the death of an elderly woman in Marlboro after state police responded to the wrong house five hours after a call to 911 from the woman’s daughter.
“I only ask this, should the state police still maintain control,” L’Esperance said. “Our mission has changed and evolved over the years. We have to play a role long term in this. We agree with the language of the bill and we’re open minded enough to realize that we need to make some changes.
A study committee works, getting everyone in the room at the same time to have this conversation is a good idea.”
Ray Ault, Levi Duclos’ uncle and the Proctor town moderator of 20 years, encouraged the formation of the study committee.
“I must reiterate that the Vermont State Police definitely blew it in the case of my nephew Levi,” Ault said. “… Technology to locate his phone was not used until the next morning. I can’t help but wonder if Levi might have lived if they did that when they arrived at the trailhead that night instead of the next morning.”
Illuzzi questioned Capt. Robert Evans about why state police did not “ping” Levi Duclos’ phone on the night he was reported missing. Evans is responsible for the state police special response teams as well as procuring their technological devices like the ARA Pointman remote-controlled robot and the $255,000 Lenco G3 armored truck.
“One of the questions asked in the missing person questionnaire filled out by a trooper is whether the person has a cell phone. Different handlers handle it differently,” Evans testified.
Evans said that delay in receiving cell phone location information once requested by police can be due to lag time with the private phone carrier company responding.
New policy same as the old policy
DPS and VSP officials gave conflicting testimony on whether internal protocols have in fact changed since Duclos’ death, drawing pointed questions from committee members.
“Before this incident, the VSP would call the fire department out and there would be unified command but it wasn’t in a written policy so in this case it didn’t happen as soon as it could have happened,” testified DPS Deputy Commissioner John Wood. “It’s institutionalized now, which insures that it will happen every time on time.”
Illuzzi questioned whether the policy in the past has been one of ad hoc decision making.
“The new policy is really the same as the old policy,” Wood said. “The gap was that it was not written. Prior to institutionalization of this policy, unified command did happen, in fact it happened in the Duclos case,” referring to the fact that state police did call out other agencies to assist in the recovery of Levi’s body the day after he had been reported as an overdue hiker.
Illuzzi also inquired as to why the state police would not call out area resources right away.
“You gather information and determine what you need first, make sure it’s safe for the rescuers. We don’t want to be sending people into harm’s way,” Wood testified.
Wood expressed surprise that there are municipal and volunteer organizations in Vermont ready and willing to assist in search and rescue.
“There are a lot of resources out there that we weren’t aware of before,” Wood said. “Partnerships have to happen long before incidents happen so VSP is reaching out and meeting with these organizations and getting to know their qualifications and getting comfortable with that. VSP realizes they need to put a database together so they aren’t waiting two to three hours for a team to come in when there’s local resources nearby.”
Sen. William Carris, D-Rutland, noted that a resource database is not the issue on the table, asking pointedly, “Where we had loss in Ripton, that wasn’t a matter of knowing resources, it was a decision, wasn’t it?”
Wood replied that in Levi Duclos’ case, “the fire department should have been called out sooner, though they might have come out with the same decision” not to search until the following day.
A lot of the times what you get is mommy and daddy call and say little Johnny is missing, but it turns out that little Johnny was mad at mommy and daddy and hid under the bed.”
Major Walter Goodell
Vermont State Police
While Wood testified that the newly institutionalized policy will insure that fire departments are notified “immediately,” Vermont State Police Major Walter Goodell testified that “the clock doesn’t start ticking until we get troopers there on the ground” and state police complete their on-scene assessment.
“I know this is a high-profile case but we get calls like this three to five times a week,” Goodell said. “We need to retain the ability to do the initial assessment. A lot of the times what you get is mommy and daddy call and say little Johnny is missing, but it turns out that little Johnny was mad at mommy and daddy and hid under the bed. We need to rule out basic things or we’re going to burn out Fish and Wildlife and the local departments very quickly.”
Goodell said that the state police written policies serve as “a template.”
“Our field officers all know what’s expected of them,” he testified, noting that the many-layered tiered command structure serves to improve communications with the troopers on the ground. “Where this differs from the past is that we’ve had close relationships with these other organizations in the past, but we formed a culture of single incident command in these incidents. In our conversations over the last 30 or 40 days we see the benefit of getting unified command in earlier in the game.”
The recent amendment to the written state police search and rescue policy was distributed publicly for the first time at the Senate hearing. The changes are incorporated into the VSP policy manual section regarding activation of the State Police Search and Rescue Team. New language requires the State Commander or on-scene supervisor to insure that the local fire chief and Vermont Fish and Wildlife District Commander have been notified of the incident, then to establish unified incident command with one of those entities. However a plain read of the policy indicates that the requirement is only initiated after the local VSP station commander determines that the search is of such magnitude that it can’t be conducted by VSP local personnel, and the state Search and Rescue Team has been activated. Section V, Chapter 8 Special Departmental Services, Article V Search and Rescue Team.
In the case of Levi Duclos, state police Search and Rescue were not notified until approximately 1:30 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 10, five and a half hours after the 911 call reporting him overdue. When asked outside the hearing whether under the language of this policy, the local fire chief and Vermont Fish and Wildlife would not have been notified until 1:30 a.m. the next day, Goodell responded, “I don’t know. I haven’t read the case file. It’s sitting on my desk but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.”
Section 2.2A of the policy regarding search and rescue operations now states that the Vermont State Police station commander or zone duty officer will be incident commander in all areas where the state police have jurisdiction, and will serve as commander of all state police resources when working outside of state police jurisdiction as part of unified command structure. The unified command for search and rescues within state police jurisdiction called for in the purpose section is not reflected in this operations section.
A subsequent section now asserts that close coordination with local fire, EMS and volunteer organizations is a priority. The placement of these provisions within the search and rescue operations policy again indicates that these provisions take effect only when the state police Search and Rescue Team has been activated.
A rescue in Bristol
According to Department of Public Safety Deputy Commissioner John Wood’s testimony, the written policy change has been utilized twice across the state. The first such instance was the search for 5-year-old Liam Bourgeois, who wandered off with his dogs and was located by a neighbor several miles away and returned safely home. The second was the rescue of Carol Maxwell of Monkton and her 13-year-old son Sam, who found themselves stuck on a sheer cliff face on the Green Mountain National Forest above the Lower Notch Road in Bristol on the afternoon of March 11. The pair phoned 911 from a location just a few miles from where Levi Duclos had been hiking.
Although Wood indicated that the Maxwells’ rescue was under the aegis of the new policy, the 911 report had come from the hikers themselves and did not involve a search for a missing person, or calling out the state police Search and Rescue team. The New Haven barracks and Waterbury headquarters of Vermont State Police declined to return numerous phone calls seeking clarification of whether the Maxwell rescue operation was in fact an example of the newly institutionalized policy.
VSP Sgt. Eugene Duplissis received notice that the hikers were in peril at about 5:45 p.m. “Before I left the barracks made contact with the game wardens and Bristol fire department, was made aware that Bristol fire had called out Middlebury Technical Rescue and the Bristol ambulance,” Duplissis said at the scene of the rescue. “Bristol police and Vergennes police also heard the call and came out to see if they could assist.”
The Bristol Fire Department was notified immediately by their dispatch. “We were immediately notified of the situation by our dispatch center, and they had the coordinates on the cell phone from the hikers,” said Brett Larose, first assistant chief of the Bristol Fire Department. “We had our personnel meet at the station and quickly went over their gear, made sure everyone was set to stay out overnight on the mountain if need be. We got notice that VSP was at roadside. I already requested that the Middlebury Technical Rescue Team come out.
Establishing a unified command, Larose and Duplissis formulated a plan that took advantage of the varied skills and assets of the diverse local resources.
“We established two teams, a hasty team that went right up and the technical rescue team, which takes a little longer to get their technical gear in order,” Larose said. “We had great communication all night, we had constant updates from up on the mountain as to where everyone was and what was going on. The young individual who was up the cliff was cold and had wet feet and the game warden, George Scribner, lit a fire up there to warm him up while they were waiting for the teams to bring him down. “
A need for ongoing oversight
While state police along with local municipal and volunteer entities moved swiftly and cooperatively to rescue the Maxwells in Bristol, creating a positive example of how search and rescue can operate with a diversified response team, volunteer organizations continue to communicate with the Senate committee expressing interest in developing legislation.
Alice Whitelock of Vermont Search and Rescue K9, a nonprofit organization, submitted written testimony advising the committee that her fully trained and certified dog team, including a highly trained cadaver dog, have been rebuffed by the state police on numerous occasions.
“We introduced ourselves to Lt. Cushing. We have not been called out. If the situation meets the proper criteria and it’s appropriate to field the team, you do all this training because you are passionate about it, then if there isn’t a goal and you aren’t called out there’s no point to it,” Whitelock told the committee at the hearing.
Among the numerous volunteer search and rescue organizations who have emailed the Senate committee, “At least one group disbanded because they were never called out,” Illuzzi said.
Kathy Duclos has also heard comments from a number of volunteer organizations. “It is apparent that there is a lot of frustration among responder groups who are either not called out, are called out and not utilized or who simply show up to volunteer and are not utilized,” she testified. “I believe that we are not hearing openly from these groups because people want to preserve their good relationships with the state police, but the frustration is out there.”
The Senate bill would establish a study committee composed of three members of the House and three of the Senate together with representatives of the state police and numerous fire and volunteer organizations around the state. The House Government Operations Committee is also considering a bill that will create a study committee as well as impose substantive response requirements on the state police.
“It is very important that we continue the public discussion and create, over time, a statutory structure that supports excellence in search and rescue,” says Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Addison, who serves on the House committee.