Lawmakers and emergency personnel want to prevent another missing hiker death from happening in Vermont again.
A committee was created last legislative session to address search and rescue protocol and logistical issues that came to light after 19-year-old Levi Duclos died of hypothermia this past January while hiking on trails on the Green Mountain ridges in Ripton.
The Search and Rescue Strategic Plan Development Committee met July 11th to begin its legislatively mandated evaluation of search and rescue operations in Vermont. Chief among the Committee’s tasks is recommending whether primary responsibility for search and rescue oversight should remain with Vermont State Police or be transferred to another state agency, most likely the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. This question simmered during four hours of discussion on issues ranging from a database of resources to training and certification criteria for search and rescue personnel. Conversation ran from cooperatively productive to frankly pointed as Committee members from emergency medical services, technical rescue teams, volunteer firefighters and police shared their divergent perspectives around one table for the first time.
Tension surfaced throughout review of the 12 legislative directives, starting with initial discussion as to whether to employ a consultant to guide the Committee’s work. Major Dennis Reinhardt, deputy chief of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife wardens, favored the value of outside eyes and national experience that a consultant would bring. Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Addison, sponsor of the legislation noted those outside eyes “could help bridge frictions between the various entities.”
Dave Shaw, deputy chief of the Middlebury Volunteer Fire Department, acknowledged that “There certainly will be friction between agencies but hopefully we can get beyond that and work for a common goal.”
Vermont Sheriff’s Association representative Ray Allen, Sheriff of Grand Isle County, and DPS Deputy Commissioner John Wood argued that a consultant was unnecessary and would cause unworkable time delays, and so the idea was abandoned.
Greg Wolf of Essex Rescue struck an optimistic note. “We have hundreds of years of experience in this room and I think we can fix this problem ourselves,” he said. “Good or bad, we can fix this.”
Statutory directives debate
DPS Deputy Commissioner John Wood opened the Committee’s review of current statutory requirements by explaining to the committee, erroneously, that Vermont state statutes identify law enforcement as the agency in charge of search and rescue events in Vermont.
Mike Cannon of Colchester Technical Rescue quickly corrected Wood, explaining that the statute at issue does not refer to search and rescue but rather to missing persons, defined only as children or developmentally disabled adults whose whereabouts are not known. “That originally came out of NCIC to make sure that law enforcement entered missing people into the NCIC database,” Cannon stated. “That’s why law enforcement always thought it was their responsibility but there’s a difference between missing people as defined by statute and people who require rescue or immediate search.” A reading of the statutory provision by Vermont Legislative Council attorney Betsy Wrask confirmed Cannon’s interpretation.
The interim search and rescue protocol set by the Vermont Legislature last session adopts a definition of search and rescue inspired by New Hampshire statutes. That interim protocol references “search for and provision of aid to people who are missing, lost, or stranded in the outdoors on Vermont’s land or inland waterways” rather than “missing persons.”
Jocelyn Stohl, the Committee’s governor-appointed public member and retired director of the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue team volunteered to lead a sub-committee to take a hard look at Vermont’s statutory directives, while Neil van Dyke of Stowe Mountain Rescue and Major Reinhardt of Vermont Fish and Wildlife offered their expertise in assembling and presenting models of search and rescue organization used by other states. Van Dyke also recommended that the state look to a single, centralized statewide entity to manage search and rescue operations across Vermont to help avoid the confusion that can occur when searches cross jurisdictional lines.
Insurance coverage for search and rescue volunteers may also be simpler with a single management entity. “Most states around the country do cover volunteers who turn out for search and rescue,” van Dyke said. “They find a way to do it.”
Vermont State Police Captain Rob Evans presented a set of core search and rescue competencies developed by international standards organization ASTM, suggesting that the committee consider their adoption. Van Dyke noted that the ASTM standards are the most universally accepted in the search and rescue field nationwide.
The proposal revealed sensitivity by volunteer organizations on the issue of whether time-consuming certification standards could force them out of search and rescue participation. Certification has been “a big concern” for ski patrol groups, said Peg Doheny. “We have 80 people who are fully trained on our hill [Jay Peak] but whether they’d be able to get involved in other search and rescue training, or be required to do that to do search on their own hills, or whether their knowledge would be taken over by someone else, is a concern.” Volunteer fire departments also are worried about being cut out by the imposition of time-consuming certification standards.
“I think minimum standards are needed and as we continue here, those may be different if you’re a member of a volunteer fire department or as you move towards more full time search and rescue,” Jocelyn Stohl said, suggesting a tiered approach to certification requirements. “The longstanding teams would want to look at a grandfathering aspect as they are training all the time and are well-qualified. Typically the model in NH and Maine is that teams are self-governing in how they operate so in order to belong to certain teams you have to have certain levels of training.”
John Wood expressed appreciation for the people like ski patrols and volunteer fire departments “that have been doing this for years,” noting that “we have to be careful not to hinder their ability to continue to be successful in search and rescue, and their special knowledge.” He concurred with Stohl that such programs should be grandfathered in to any adopted training requirements.
Bill sponsor Willem Jewett swiftly disagreed. “I’d like to express a contrary position,” he said. “We have to be very careful as we approach grandfathering and exceptions. If we look at the interim protocol it is the clear intent of the Legislature that we require and document a specific level of training. We have to approach this thoughtfully.”
After action review and high-speed response
The Legislature directed the Committee to recommend a method of after-action review for search and rescue operations, a technique familiar to those working in the field.
“There’s an after-action review to review the positive, negatives, limitations,” VSP Captain Rob Evans said. “It may be as simple as a conference call or sit down in a room like this and check the egos at the door.”
John Wood stated that under the new interim search and rescue protocol, after-action review also includes the local responders and other partners who participated in the event. Volunteers who had aided in the extraction of Levi Duclos’ body from the Green Mountain National Forest had previously stated that they were excluded from VSP after-action review of that incident.
Neil van Dyke recommended that Vermont consider formalizing a statewide Search and Rescue Council modeled after those in other states, which perform after-incident reviews of searches throughout the state regardless of who was involved in the operation. A similar informal group has operated in Vermont for 9 years. The Committee requested that the informal group conduct after-action reviews of some of the 24 calls for search and rescue services that have occurred in Vermont since adoption of the interim protocols. The exercise will help inform the Committee both as to the effectiveness of the interim protocols as well as provide a demonstration of how a statewide Search and Rescue Council might function.
The Committee charge includes recommending methods of balancing speed versus safety in responding to calls for help in order to create the greatest level of efficiency. While several members of the Committee expressed that this was simply redundant to their other tasks, Jocelyn Stohl emphasized its crucial importance and alluded to VSP’s delay in filling out the search urgency assessment form in the Levi Duclos case.
“This is a very important piece of what happened in the past so we might look at this independently,” Stohl said. “There was the question of assessing the urgency of the response.” In her former role as head of the VSP search and rescue team, Stohl “evaluated all calls that came for request for services. That form was part of that but also other aspects, time the call comes in, time the person was reported missing, there’s a lot to it and that’s what keys off how quickly the response can be generated.”
VSP or Vermont Fish and Wildlife?
The legislative charge that the Committee “determine whether the department of public safety or a different state agency should be responsible for supervising search and rescue operations for people who are missing, lost, or stranded in the outdoors on Vermont’s land or inland waterways” is “sort of an ultimate question, an endpoint of our study,” Jewett said. “There’s been a hue and cry about taking this away from public safety. There’s a lack of confidence. There’s lack of communication with the locals and I think the department has been responsive to that, but there’s also this question of whether the cops are able to move away from crime control and get moving and get the aid out there. So if we don’t look at that, we have not done our job as a committee.”
Neil van Dyke quizzed VSP Captain Evans on State Police ability to continue managing search and rescue. “One of my long term concerns is that search and rescue has been very much an ancillary concern of the state police,” he said. “It’s questionable whether adequate time and resources for training and search and rescue have been available given the other things you have to do. In the long term do you have the resources to do this?”
Evans responded that the state police could muster the resources to provide search and rescue management, but cannot adequately perform searches in the state without leveraging resources from other places such as volunteer organizations.
“I know we don’t have the resources to do it ourselves, to be out in the woods and also to manage search and rescue operations,” he said, noting that all the VSP special teams including search and rescue as well as bomb squad and K9 teams, are secondary duties over and above the officers’ ordinary trooper mandates. “We can’t control it all and put all the boots on the ground.”
Jewett requested that Evans produce the self-assessment of search and rescue resources that the legislation had required VSP to perform. “Do you have documents that assess the resources currently?” he asked.
“We are going to have to do self-reflection about the level of training we have,” Evans replied.
“That self-assessment is part of the interim protocol,” Jewett pressed. “Can you give me those papers?”
Evans demurred, suggesting that the VSP Search and Rescue team leader might be better able to describe the qualifications of each of the people on the team.
Jewett grew pointed. “Our intent and desire was for you to do this assessment and tell us what it produced. I may be putting you on the spot so perhaps for a future meeting, we want to see that assessment. It’s all laid out here what you are supposed to discuss,” he said, waving a paper copy of the Legislature’s interim protocol.
John Wood pushed back on the issue of whether the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department has the ability to handle search and rescue, returning once again to the theme that searches for lost hikers might involve a criminal element. “There are two agencies in Vermont, I’ll just put it right out on the table, that can do this,” he said. “They both have law enforcement background and authority. But if there is a criminal element it will probably be State Police that will continue to do the crime scene work, and I’m not sure that Fish and Wildlife has that capability.”
“We have the ability to investigate crime,” countered Fish and Wildlife Major Dennis Reinhardt, citing the agency’s record on investigation of prosecution of fish and game law violations before admitting that state police take charge of crimes not related to fish and game laws.
Committee members inquired as to the relative law enforcement staffing of each agency. Fish and Wildlife has 38 law enforcement officers, but all work out in the field and are familiar with the state’s woodlands and waterways. Vermont State Police have 328 officers, but their search and rescue team has only 18 officers assigned as an adjunct to their normal highway patrol and law enforcement duties.
Wood attempted to drive his case home. “Fish and Wildlife testified repeatedly to the legislature that they don’t have the resources to do this. Is that still the case? Nothing has changed, has it?”
Reinhardt paused before offering a calm and measured response. “I’d say that this has led us to take a good look at our resources,” he said. “We have spent the last six months or so researching the issue of whether we can undertake this if we’re given the task, and we’ve developed an operational plan in the event that we are given this task.” Committee members requested that Fish and Wildlife present that operational plan at the next meeting.
The Committee is restricted to holding a maximum of five working meetings, and must report to the legislature by December 15th. The next meeting is scheduled for August 22nd at 12:30 in the Vermont Statehouse.
Vermont Search and Rescue Strategic Plan Development Committee Members:
Senator Dick Mazza
Vermont Department of Public Safety Deputy Commissioner John Wood
Rep. Willem Jewett
Ray Allen, Vermont Sheriff’s Association – Sheriff of Grand Isle County
Michael Cannon, Colchester Technical Rescue
Scott Cooney, Professional Firefighters of Vermont
Peg Doheny, National Ski Patrol—Jay peak ski patrol director
George Fon, President, Vermont Police Association
Major Dennis Reinhardt, Vermont Fish and Wildlife, Deputy Chief of Law Enforcement.
David Shaw, Volunteer Firefighters Association – Deputy Chief Middlebury Fire Department
Jocelyn Stohl, Public member appointed by governor (retired head of VSP SAR)
Neil Van Dyke, Stowe Mountain Rescue, president National Association of Search and Rescue
Gregory Wolf, Essex Rescue
Gabrielle Malina, Vermont legislative council
Attorney Betsy Rask, legislative council facilitated the meeting