Fresh criticisms of Vermont State Police response emerge as search and rescue bill is enacted

Photo 2 is identified in the public records release as having been taken by VSP Sgt. Robert Patten on January 10, 2012. It shows an unidentified member of the search team warming his feet at the fire which records indicate was built to warm Levi Duclos' dog (the yellow dog in the picture) who survived the night with him. The photo shows the searcher's snow-encrusted light (not winter) hiking boots, cotton camo pants, and what look like wet gray cotton socks. VSP photo

Photo 2 is identified in the public records release as having been taken by VSP Sgt. Robert Patten on January 10, 2012. It shows an unidentified member of the search team warming his feet at the fire which records indicate was built to warm Levi Duclos' dog (the yellow dog in the picture) who survived the night with him. The photo shows the searcher's snow-encrusted light (not winter) hiking boots, cotton camo pants, and what look like wet gray cotton socks. VSP photo

A law aimed at restructuring Vermont search and rescue response protocols was originally signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin on May 15. The bill as passed by the Legislature puts in place interim protocols requiring state police to share incident command with local fire and rescue organizations when an outdoor recreationalist is reported missing or overdue.

A study committee, tasked with assessing whether the search and rescue function should be transferred from state police to another entity as well as providing guidance for permanent response protocols, is forming up and scheduled to hold its first meeting in early July, according to Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Addison, a chief sponsor of the bill.

Meanwhile, fresh criticisms have surfaced in material released under a public records request regarding state police response to the incident of Levi Duclos, the 19-year-old hiker from New Haven whose death from hypothermia prompted the Legislature to re-evaluate search and rescue protocols.

Documents contained in the released records include an internal incident review by state police Lt. Gary Genova and an email communication from Stowe Mountain Search and Rescue director Neil van Dyke indicating substantial deficiencies, including inappropriate equipment which could have created hazards for police personnel had the search for Duclos gone on any longer in the cold, icy conditions.

Urgency assessment done after decision was made

An incident critique prepared by Genova on Feb. 8 states that, in after-incident review, there was “[s]ome concern expressed about time delay to obtain the LPQ [Lost Person Questionnaire]… About (4) four hours past [sic] between initial response and urgency assessment.” An urgency assessment comprises “a single page form used to calculate the type of response needed in a case such as this,” according to state police Lt. Robert Cushing, leader of the state police Search and Rescue team.

Vermont State Police records show that the decision not to search for Levi Duclos the night of Jan. 9 was already made before that urgency assessment was completed, and that the data included on that form were contrary to information and conditions existing at the time the form was completed.

Genova’s incident critique noted limited radio and cell phone coverage, which played at least some role in the response delay. According to police documents, there was no air card, Verizon or MDC [mobile data computer] Internet connection at the trailhead of the Emily Proctor Trail in Ripton, only limited ATT cell communications and limited Ch1 radio.

The scores Cushing indicated on the form supported the decision already made: to provide a “measured response” rather than an emergency response.

Sgt. Stephen McNamara’s report dated Feb. 18 recounts the four-hour delay between the 8:30 p.m. call to 911 on Jan. 9 and the completion of the Lost Person Questionnaire at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 10. McNamara had promptly assigned the call to Trooper Joe Szarejko. Szarejko spoke briefly with Ann Duclos, Levi’s mother, by phone. Ann Duclos advised that she was going with the family to the trailhead, and that Levi was dressed in cotton and did not have substantial supplies of food and water.

Szarkejko met the family at the trailhead at approximately 10 p.m. Records do not indicate what caused the 90-minute delay between the phone call and Szarejko’s arrival at the trailhead less than 20 miles from the New Haven police barracks. Szarejko left the trailhead at 10:40 p.m. to update McNamara, because lack of telecommunications in the area made it necessary to drive out to receive coverage.

According to his report, McNamara then called Genova to apprise him of the developing situation. McNamara directed Szarejko to complete a Lost Person Questionnaire prior to McNamara’s arrival at the scene.

McNamara did not arrive at the trailhead until 12:30 a.m., claiming he had been delayed by seasonal forest road closures of which he was apparently unaware. He found that Szarejko had not completed the Lost Person Questionnaire as directed; Szarejko indicated that he did not have a paper copy of the form and didn’t have Internet or cell access in his car at the trailhead so he could not access it in his onboard computer.

McNamara had a paper copy in his cruiser and completed the form with Ann Duclos while parked at the trailhead. Prior to contacting the state Search and Rescue team leader, McNamara told Ann Duclos that state police would not be going out to look for Levi until the next day. At 1:30 a.m., McNamara contacted Lt. Robert Cushing of the state police Search and Rescue team, and asked that he direct three K-9 handlers to sign on at 6 a.m. the next morning to prepare for a search.

Cushing’s report confirms that the decision not to search until the next day had already been made prior to his being informed of the situation and prior to his completion of a Search Urgency form.

“There are search urgency guidelines that we go by,” Cushing had said in a prior interview. “If there is background information that indicates that the situation is urgent, we assign a number to it based on these factors. Low number means lower urgency and lower response.” This is contrary to the directions on the form, which states in a bold-faced box at the top, “Remember, the lower the number the more urgent the response!!!”

“I was surrounded by game wardens, dogs, all these people ready to go, and they all stood around waiting for orders from the state police to start searching.” ~Kathy Duclos

Despite sub-freezing temperatures, snow and mountainous terrain, and despite having been informed that Levi was improperly dressed, ill-equipped and not familiar with this trail, Cushing completed the Search Urgency form indicating no hazardous weather, few or no terrain hazards, and noting that Levi knew the area in which he was hiking. He also indicated a medium score for equipment sufficiency, rather than inadequate equipment for the environment.

The scores Cushing indicated on the form supported the decision already made: to provide a “measured response” rather than an emergency response.

In a prior interview, van Dyke, leader of Stowe Mountain Rescue and president of the national Mountain Rescue Association, said completion of search urgency assessment forms can involve subjectivity on the part of the person filling out the form.

In an email memorandum to state police Lt. Robert Evans dated Feb. 6, after a follow-up after-incident meeting, van Dyke stated, “… in the same scenario it is highly likely we [Stowe Mountain Rescue] would have initiated a night search. I also understand that we have trained resources locally available which makes that decision (and the implementation) much easier. I think the ‘urgency’ was right on the cusp of ‘urgent’ … There was a known location, a known itinerary, clear tracks going in one direction of the loop and not coming down the other, so it creates an opportunity for a relatively simple hasty team response with a small number of people (i.e. low cost), for a potential high benefit (somebody solo out overnight dressed poorly in sub-freezing temperatures).”

Unprepared troopers

McNamara had not requested full deployment of the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue team when he contacted Cushing at 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 10. Instead, he requested that three K-9 handlers — Sgt. Duplissis, Trooper Busby and Trooper Giolito — be dispatched at 6 a.m. Vermont state police personnel are deemed on duty as soon as they enter their cruisers in their driveways at home and sign in. According to the incident log, Duplissis, who lives within 15 miles of the trailhead, arrived at 6:50 a.m. and the other K-9 troopers arrived around 8 a.m.

Fish & Wildlife wardens, U.S. Forest Service personnel, other volunteers and members of the Duclos family were already gathered at the trailhead waiting for state police to initiate the search.

Kathy Duclos, Levi’s aunt, who has strongly advocated for removing the search and rescue function from state police control, testified to a committee of the Vermont Senate, “My own experience at the trailhead was that I was surrounded by game wardens, dogs, all these people ready to go, and they all stood around waiting for orders from the state police to start searching.”

State police representatives testified to both Vermont House and Senate committees that the search and rescue function must remain with state police because of their superior ability to rapidly assess situation urgency as well as their superior training and preparedness.

Van Dyke severely criticized that preparedness in his after-incident communication to state police Lt. Robert Evans:

“I was frankly disappointed when the team that was assembled from VSP started talking about their preparedness for the search the next morning. By their own admission they were not really fully prepared for a backcountry search under the existing conditions. They were dressed in cotton, had to scramble for snowshoes (ultimately did not have enough for everybody), and appeared to arrive expecting to do a roadside K-9 search. … I don’t know where the breakdown was … but their equipment and preparedness were lacking.”

Those deficiencies could have placed police personnel at risk if the search which led to the recovery of Levi’s body did not end as swiftly as it did, van Dyke wrote: “… It turned out OK, but had the subject been 6 miles from the trailhead on the top of the ridge, I think some of your folks might have started to experience some difficulty with the colder weather, deeper snow, etc. …”

Vermont state police did not return phone calls requesting comment on the subject matter of this article.

Photo 3 is also identified as having been taken by VSP Sgt. Patten on Jan. 10, 2012; it's the search team heading off into the woods.  VSP photo

Photo 3 is also identified as having been taken by VSP Sgt. Patten on Jan. 10, 2012; it's the search team heading off into the woods. VSP photo

Comments

  1. Kathy Duclos :

    The State Police and their lobbyists have many convinced that they are the only organization that is capable of coordinating search and rescue. This was so botched and mishandled it seems a no-brainer that Fish & Wildlife or the Forest Service or some other yet to be organized management group would do a better job.
    For the record, Sgt. McNamara filled out the LPQ with me, not Ann – she was still in the woods searching. That is another error in their report.

  2. Christian Noll :

    “The State Police and their lobbyists have many convinced that they are the only organization that is capable of coordinating search and rescue.”

    And were the police “capable” with Levi’s case? The police are about getting as much power as they can regardless if its in the public’s best interests or not.

    More authority for the police isn’t always within the public’s best interest and Levi’s case is a prime example.

    This IS A “RED FLAG” and some other department should be in charge and be properly funded.

    The police FAILED not Levi. So why should we give the police a second, third or fourth chance at this? Are you kidding? They bungled it numerous times and its time to pass the reigns to some other department.

    Search and Rescue IS NOT law enforcement.

  3. john burton :

    vermonters have phones, equipment, know how, experience and common sense. yet we defer to bureaucrats to guide us. why?

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