Editor’s note: This story was written by Cindy Ellen Hill, a law and policy writer and attorney in Middlebury.
As Vermonters and visitors begin planning spring outings in the state’s mountains, woods and waters, a sense of urgency descends on the House Government Operations Committee as its members press to initiate meaningful search and rescue reforms before the end of the legislative session. Spurred to action by the death of a hiker on the Green Mountain National Forest in Ripton this past winter — an incident which resulted in round criticism of Vermont State Police search and rescue protocols — legislators are determining which seeds of change have the best odds of bearing fruit while the Legislature is on summer leave. Under consideration are formation of a strategic plan committee, legislation requiring due haste in search and rescue responses, and creation of a new statewide search and rescue coordinator position.
“I don’t want to go home, and between now and the time the next legislative session commences, something that has happened once happens again because we did not make a decision,” said Government Operations committee member Michel Consejo, a Democrat from Sheldon Springs, at a series of early April hearings. “I would feel really bad knowing that I had a chance to make a difference in somebody’s life and because of my inaction, something has happened to someone.”
Testimony was received from a number of fire department representatives around the state as well as Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety John Wood and Vermont Emergency Management Director Joe Flynn.
Search and rescue community input
Neil Van Dyke, founder of the Stowe Mountain Rescue Team, national president of the Mountain Rescue Association, and owner/manager of the Golden Eagle Resort in Stowe, presented the House committee with a detailed proposal for restructuring search and rescue in Vermont. Calling for creation of a statewide search and rescue coordinator as well as a nonprofit association to raise funds and coordinate training and resources, Van Dyke’s proposal envisioned maintaining the role of Vermont State Police as the lead search and rescue agency, at least for the present.
“Fish and Wildlife has testified that right now they don’t have the people and resources to undertake that function,” Van Dyke told the committee on April 3. “That’s not to say that can’t change in the future, but what’s most important now is getting an appropriate system in place.”
Van Dyke also emphasized the need for Vermont law to distinguish between backcountry search and rescue events and other missing person cases. He noted the statutes of several other states create a distinct protocol for handling persons missing in woodlands and inland waterways, a difference not reflected in Vermont law.
Jocelyn Stohl, a retired 23-year veteran of Vermont State Police search and rescue who now works as a private search and rescue educator, testified in support of a Legislature-led initiative. Stohl emphasized the need to close the gap in initial notification procedures for search and rescue and other missing persons.
“We’ve never been able to solve the notification piece of the component of a SAR plan system. Lacking a proper notification process intensified the work needed to be done to resolve the mission,” she testified on April 4. “Going back historically, there are many contributing factors to that. … I wrote a memo in 1999 to one of our colonels and recommended a change in the notification process. The down and dirty of it is exactly what we’re talking about today: We need a rapid notification system in place that takes that 911 call once it’s identified as a search and rescue, and puts it in the hands of a mission initiator, someone who is trained in search management, in lost person behavior, in search urgency.”
Calling Vermont’s wealth of willing citizen volunteers an “untapped resource” in the field, Stohl noted that she recently received a call from a group of citizens forming a Killington Search and Rescue team. “They have volunteers, people from ski patrol, from first responder teams, some avid rock climbers,” she said. “I believe we have the talent in our state right now to produce in a very short period of time the best practices proven of a state SAR plan.”
Major Walter Goodell of the Vermont State Police testified that his agency is ready and willing to participate in legislated search and rescue reform.
“By having an open dialogue with all the stakeholders in the room you’ll be able to take all the different pieces into consideration and make it work,” Goodell said. “It’s time to have this discussion and we are totally engaged and totally on board.”
Rep. Willem Jewett, a Democrat from Ripton, reiterated the need for action before the close of the session, either by offering a stand-alone bill or by amending a similar study committee bill which has been offered by Republic Sen. Vince Illuzzi of Newport.
“We just need to decide which basket to put each recommendation in,” Jewett said. “The basket of things we are including now in our bill, or the basket of deliverables we are tasking the strategic planning committee to come back to us within the next session.”
Some members of Vermont’s volunteer search and rescue community are not waiting for legislative action.
“We were very upset about this whole matter, and we’re not waiting for grass to grow under us here,” says Ed Sullivan, environmental health and safety coordinator at Middlebury College and director of the college’s First Response team. “This was a tragedy that if at all possible we want to prevent from happening again. I’m cautiously optimistic that things are moving forward, but we don’t have to sit down and wait for the Legislature to act.”
Sullivan is cognizant that Middlebury College owns 2,500 mountain acres including cross country and downhill ski facilities nestled between thousands of acres of Green Mountain National Forest. “We have a lot of exposure, and I don’t mean liability, I mean so many students out on the Long Trail and out in the woods skiing and hiking,” Sullivan says.
Several of the students on the college’s First Response team are wilderness search and rescue certified, and a number of team members also acquired ice rescue certification after three people died going through the ice on Lake Dunmore in Salisbury several winters ago.
On April 7, Sullivan gathered search and rescue volunteers from around Addison County to the Kirk Alumni Center at Middlebury College to engage in a coordinated training and to begin to assemble a database of available area personnel and equipment. Noting that it takes time to fully develop the training and assets for the most effective teamwork, the county-wide training event is seen as a step in the right direction, Sullivan said before the event. “There are a lot of people out there wanting to act, and a lot of privately owned resources. Everyone is coming into this wanting to provide an appropriate response.”