MONPTELIER — House and Senate lawmakers on Monday are drafting legislation that would clearly define search-and-rescue protocols for Vermont emergency responders in connection with lost or injured hikers, this in the wake of the tragic death of 19-year-old Levi Duclos on a Ripton trail last month.
It is too late in the session for new bills to be filed into Legislative committee. But Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton and House majority whip, said the House Government Operations Committee on which he serves will be able to develop an initiative to bring to a vote before the 2012 Legislature adjourns. He said he will make drafting such legislation “a priority” during the coming weeks.
Jewett said he discussed Duclos’ death and ideas for preventing a future tragedy during a Feb. 17 closed door meeting with Vermont State Police leaders, other public safety officials and Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith.
“It was a very productive meeting,” Jewett said on Monday. “I think we communicated that, process-wise, the Government Operations Committee will be taking this up… We are going to take testimony and hear some of the painful opening up of this in a public forum. It was important for us to look each other in the eye and get a feeling of where this is going process-wise.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Orleans, has drafted legislation to be considered by the state Senate. That legislation proposes to establish a seven-member “backcountry search-and-rescue study committee” to draft specific protocols for searching for missing hikers, a process he said should include local emergency responders. In the meantime, the bill calls for the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife to take the lead in backcountry search-and-rescue operations while defining specific roles for local emergency responders.
INCIDENT SPARKS OUTCRY
All of this comes in the aftermath of the death of Levi Duclos, a New Haven resident and 2010 graduate of Mount Abraham Union High School. Duclos went hiking with his dog on Jan. 9 along the Emily Proctor Trail in Ripton and his family got concerned when he hadn’t returned as scheduled early that evening.
Kathy Duclos, Levi’s aunt and a family spokesperson, told the Addison Independent this week that the family, in addition to calling 911 (at around 8 p.m.), organized its own search that night that continued into the early morning hours of Jan. 10.
But Vermont State Police, according to family members, did not mobilize a broader search involving other local responders, such as fire departments and rescue squads.
Current state law gives Vermont State Police primary responsibility for finding lost hikers and other missing people in areas of the state that do not have municipal police departments. Vermont is one of only five states that require its state police to find and rescue people who are lost or missing outdoors, according to Howard Paul, a public information officer and member of the board of directors of the National Association for Search and Rescue.
Information supplied by the Vermont Legislative Council indicates that while Vermont has “an extensive number” of first responders and emergency service personnel with specific training and experience conducting outdoor search and rescue operations, only four civilian organizations are approved by the department of public safety to provide search-and-rescue assistance in Vermont.
“If we had had the help of a search-and-rescue team, the outcome could have been different,” Duclos said in a statement to the Addison Independent. “We had trusted that calling 911 was our only option for soliciting search-and-rescue assistance. While the family searched, one and sometimes two state police officers were on the scene at the trailhead (with Levi's car) and stayed all night, but did not participate in the search.”
STATE POLICE RESPONSE
The Addison Independent reached out to Col. Tom L’Esperance, director of the VSP, for comment on the draft legislation and the aftermath of the Duclos search. L’Esperance responded with this written statement:
“Commenting on a piece of legislation that has not been officially filed is not appropriate. And regarding the unfortunate death of Levi Duclos, it would be unprofessional to comment about an open investigation, as the final autopsy report is incomplete.”
Lt. Gary Genova, commander of the VSP’s New Haven barracks, said the “state police are always open to looking at ways to improve anything we do, whether it is search-and-rescue related or any type of service we provide.”
Genova noted that since the Duclos case he has met with representatives of the Starksboro, Lincoln, Bristol and Ripton fire departments for an “after-action review” of the response to the incident and what skills and capabilities the four departments could lend in future searches.
“We want to find out if they want to be a viable resource in future missions and then provide training if in fact they want to do that,” Genova said. “We left it that each of the departments will go back and do an assessment of the level to which they want to be involved in these types of rescue missions.”
Genova said he is aware of the public outcry in the aftermath of the Duclos case and the extent to which local citizens are willing to help.
“I am very, very happy to see the amount of passion that agencies have to help — that is huge,” Genova said.
“What we are really doing is trying to grab ahold of the amount of passion that is out there and harness it in a way that would be useful in the future.”
LEGISLATURE EYES CHANGES
While the case remains open, Kathy Duclos provided a few additional details: First, that the state’s medical examiner recently phoned the family to report that Levi had not broken his leg and had merely sustained a bruised shin. Investigators at the scene had originally suspected a serious leg injury, as they had reported signs that Levi Duclos had attempted to slide himself down the trail.
His body was found around three miles from the trailhead.
Kathy Duclos also revealed that Levi's dog, Duke, had stayed by his side and was with Levi when he was found the next day. Duke survived unharmed, Duclos said.
Asked if the family is considering litigation against the state in connection with Levi’s death, Kathy Duclos replied, “No comment.”
State officials were candid in voicing their concerns about how the Duclos incident was handled and said they would work to improve the situation.
“We need to roll to the trailhead right away, establish a base camp, get all the assets — whether they are the state police, the local game wardens, local fire departments or whoever,” Jewett said. “Get them rolling to the trailhead… and then figure out the smartest way to get to the person. It will be a difficult experience to get into this, but it will be a valuable one.
“The standard needs to be, ‘We go out and get everyone as quickly as we can, every time,’” Jewett added.
Jewett acknowledged receiving calls of concern from all corners of the state in the aftermath of Duclos’ death. Interest in the case and the state’s seeming lack of clearly defined search/rescue protocols for hikers has been fanned recently by an extensive article by Middlebury resident Cindy Ellen Hill that has run in VT Digger and the Addison Independent.
While Jewett is taking a lead on search-and-rescue legislation in the House, Illuzzi is leading a similar effort on the Senate side. He has asked Legislative Council to draft language that would:
• Establish an seven-member “backcountry search-and-rescue study committee” whose duties would also include: reviewing the state’s existing procedures for search-and-rescue in backcountry areas; considering models in other states for supervision of backcountry search-and-rescue operations; evaluating whether such operations would be conducted in a more timely and efficient manner if supervised by a state or non-governmental entity other than the Vermont Department of Public Safety; considering the feasibility of establishing an online database of missing persons that would provide automatic notice to first responders; developing methods of financing search-and-rescue operations; establishing an “outdoor recreation search-and-rescue card” available for purchase by users of outdoor recreation resources on a voluntary basis to help reimburse the expenses of search-and-rescue missions; imposing fees on recreational and outdoor licenses and permits; allowing for recovery of expenses from any person whose negligent conduct required a search-and-rescue response; and proposing any statutory changes that the committee identifies as necessary to improve the conduct and supervision of backcountry search-and-rescue activities in Vermont.
The committee would report its findings and recommendations — together with draft legislation if any legislative action is advised — to the general assembly on or before Jan. 15, 2013.
• Request that in the interim, the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife “develop and implement a protocol establishing responsibility and authority for backcountry search-and-rescue operations in Vermont.” That protocol — due by Sept. 1 this year — would give Fish & Wildlife the lead responsibility for backcountry search-and-rescue operations in Vermont, while defining specific roles for area fire departments, emergency medical services providers, first responders, and other available community search-and-rescue providers.
In essence, Illuzzi believes the state should marshal the same resources and effort in finding a lost hiker that it does in its search for a downed aircraft.
Illuzzi, chairman of the Senate’s Economic Development Housing and General Affairs Committee, said he will likely introduce the legislation as a rider on another public safety-related bill already making the rounds in the Statehouse.
“My heart goes out to (the Duclos) family and that young man’s friends,” Illuzzi said.
“Everyone assumed that a young and healthy man would be walking out of those woods.”
QUICK RESPONSE IS CRITICAL
Indeed, such assumptions must be laid to rest, according to Ceredwyn Alexander, an EMT and captain of the Ripton Volunteer Fire Department. She said the general public is unaware of the manpower and special precautions needed to retrieve and stabilize people suffering from hypothermia in the frigid conditions such as Levi Duclos was battling during the night he died.
Alexander said if a search-and-rescue group knows where the distressed hiker is, it will usually muster a two-person “hasty team,” carrying minimal equipment, to rapidly get to the site. The team will administer aid and, if the hiker can walk, get him or her down as quickly as possible.
If the person can’t walk, the hasty team summons more help and does not try to move the hiker. That’s because a person suffering from hypothermia cannot be put through physical stress.
“We say that a cold heart is a fragile heart,” Alexander said, noting that if cold blood in the patient’s extremities is pumped through the heart, it can cause cardiac arrest. And an unconscious person has lost the capacity to re-warm him or herself, she said.
“You need 20 or 30 people to move a person properly,” Alexander said, noting the need to have plenty of strong arms to ensure the patient is not dropped or jostled to a great extent.
Alexander was candid in her outrage about how the Duclos search was handled.
“Assuming that the VSP was handling the actual search, Lincoln and Ripton Volunteer Fire Department should have been notified so that we could properly assemble our people for the rescue,” Alexander wrote in an e-mail to Illuzzi, Jewett and other officials.
“Another point is that the local departments train constantly in different aspects of search and rescue,” she added. “Lincoln, in fact, has several members trained in back country rescue, while Ripton has members specially trained in the search for mentally impaired and autistic people (given the nearby presence of the Silver Towers Camp).”
Alexander said hers and other local fire and rescue departments would have been happy to turn out for the search for Duclos.
“The most important thing to me is that local authorities need to get notified when someone is lost in their jurisdiction; we know the trails,” Alexander said.
“We shouldn’t have to be reading about this in the newspaper.”
That sentiment was echoed by Dan Ober, chief of the Lincoln Fire Department. In a letter to the editor appearing in this issue of the Independent, Ober states, “As head of the organization designated by the state as the primary emergency response agency for the town of Lincoln, I was greatly dismayed that we were not notified of the event immediately. We have responded to many similar incidents in the past and have resources and local knowledge at the ready. I understand because of the tragic outcome in this case passions run high and I also am viewing this with the benefit of hindsight, but I cannot help but think we may have been helpful if we were involved earlier.”
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, added his voice to those mourning the Duclos family’s loss.
“Well meaning people got together and made the best decision they could, late at night,” Fisher said. “We all look back and… question that decision. My main complaint is that everyone who was needed in this situation wasn’t there. I live in Lincoln and I have buddies on the fire department who pride themselves for their back-country rescue expertise and rescue.”
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, said she will keep a close eye on legislative efforts to prevent future hiking tragedies.
“The approach, I think, in both the House and the Senate will be to look at what are we doing now; what everybody else is doing; and what is wrong with our system that would allow this to happen,” Ayer said. “There are all kinds of people saying, ‘We would have gone out,’ but there isn’t a system in place to make sure the people who should know about it, know about it. This family had no idea that that’s what happens when you call state police. I sure was shocked.”
But Ayer and Illuzzi added that the VSP’s ranks are thin, leading to manpower shortages throughout the early morning.
“Firefighters will tell their families, ‘If something really bad happens, call the fire department,’” Ayer said. “And these are volunteer fire departments because they know the police aren’t going to come. There are just so many (state troopers to go around). We have to figure out what resources we have and get a new system.”
“The VSP is still a relatively small police force,” Illuzzi added, “and we can't expect them to respond to every rescue, and therein lies the problem.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]