Last week the Vermont House unanimously passed bill H. 794, a bill which originated in the House Government Operations Committee to substantially reform search and rescue response across the state. The bill passed to the Senate on a waiver of rules which allowed it to move across the bicameral divide despite having missed the cross-over date.
The Senate Government Operations committee had scheduled a hearing on the bill for Monday, but canceled the hearing without notice to those who had been invited to testify, according to one such witness. The bill was sent to the Senate Rules Committee on Monday and not released to the Senate Government Operations committee until Wednesday night.
Rep. Willem Jewett (D-Addison) had developed the House bill after the hypothermia death of 19-year-old Levi Duclos on a popular hiking trail in the Green Mountain National Forest. State police were notified at 8 p.m. by family members that Duclos was overdue to return from a day hike, but they did not initiate a search operation until mid-morning the following day. The House bill would set interim operational requirements for prompt responses in search and rescue cases, require cooperation with municipal and civilian search and rescue organizations, and establish a study committee to evaluate whether the state’s search and rescue function should remain with state police or pass to Fish & Wildlife wardens or other agencies.
A similar, but less-extensive bill calling for a search-and-rescue summer study committee was presented in the Senate by Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex-Orleans). After hearings in the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee, the Senate search and rescue proposal was appended to S.169, a bill regarding workers’ compensation liens.
“We used a worker comp bill because by the time the death was known to me, it was too late to introduce new bills,” Illuzzi said.
On April 19, Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) objected to the attachment of the search and rescue study committee bill on the point of order that it is not germane to the workers’ compensation lien bill. Snelling advised by email that she does not object to the search and rescue bill, but objects to its inclusion in the workers compensation bill.
Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Burlington) moved to suspend the rules to permit consideration of the search and rescue provisions. That motion was not voted on, and the discussion was deferred to a future date. This week, with the question of amendment still pending, Illuzzi offered a further change to the bill, adding a proposal of extensive changes to state emergency services.