Police rescue tactics questioned
MIDDLEBURY — A responsible hiker, hunter, angler or backcountry skier brings along a cell phone and appropriate gear, and lets his family or friends know where he’s going and when he’s expected back before heading into the wilderness. If he doesn’t make it back at the appointed hour, his family can call 9-1-1 and report that he is missing.
Nineteen-year-old Levi Duclos of New Haven followed those reasonable precautions when he took his dog for a walk on the Emily Proctor Trail in nearby Ripton on an unseasonably warm January day. A 2010 graduate of Mount Abraham High School in Bristol where he’d helped found the Environmental Club, Duclos spent a year hiking in the western United States and in Nepal, where he also taught English in a small mountain town. He started studies at Reed College in Portland, Ore., in the fall semester of 2011 and was home visiting his mother, brother and friends over winter break.
His concerned family reported Levi as a missing hiker at 8 p.m.
Vermont State Police did not search for Duclos that night as temperatures dropped to zero, nor did they call any of Vermont’s qualified first responders or search and rescue organizations to do so. Mid-morning the following day, they found his body just three miles up the popular, well-marked trail.
An experienced outdoorsman, Duclos must have known that plummeting temperatures meant he was in mortal peril. What he and most Vermont outdoors recreationalists probably didn’t know is that in most areas of our state, the odds are that if you’re missing in the woods and your absence is reported to the state police, no one will come looking for you until morning.
And morning can be far too late.
According to Vermont State Police press statements, Levi Duclos suffered a broken leg and dragged himself down a portion of the trail prior to his death. Other witnesses from the recovery scene have called into question whether Duclos had suffered outward injuries; an autopsy has been ordered but the results have not yet been released. Toxicology reports are pending.
The cause and timing of Duclos’ death is not yet publicly known. However, a rapid response improves the odds of recovering any missing person alive.
TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE
In any search and rescue call, time is of the essence, says Howie McCausland, an EMT with Bristol Rescue Squad who has participated in the rescue of hikers injured on Bristol Cliff trails. The urgency increases in the cold.
“People die of exposure even on what we think of as warm days. Body temperature only works within a narrow range. The brain malfunctions if the body temperature drops even a few degrees,” McCausland says. “I experienced this once myself when I overturned a canoe in cold water. I got stupid, as stupid as if I’d up-ended a pint of tequila.”
Injuries can compound the impact of hypothermia, creating a downward spiral. “Somebody lying in the snow on a cold night with an injury is a situation as time-sensitive as that of someone suffering from internal bleeding,” McCausland says.
Even if the person is not injured or in danger of hypothermia, a prompt response can mean the difference between life and death.
“The more time that goes by, the worse it is for them and for us,” says Maine Search and Rescue Commander Kevin Adams of the Maine Warden Service. “The more time that passes the further away they can be.”
In Vermont, response time for a missing hiker can be within a couple of hours if the incident is called in as an injured recreationalist, because local fire departments and first responders are dispatched for a report of an injury. Response times may also be swift if the call is made in towns with municipal police and municipal search and rescue teams like Stowe or Colchester.
For incidents where Vermont State Police have jurisdiction, there are not likely to be boots on the ground until the next day, possibly 14 to 16 hours after the person was reported overdue.
“Generally our response is at first light the next morning but that’s based off the information on the missing person,” says Lt. Robert Cushing, an investigator at the St. Johnsbury state police barracks and team leader of the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Unit. State police generally don’t conduct a physical search at night “because ultimately it could be a criminal investigation. A good example of that is Brooke Bennett, who was reported as a missing person and it turned into a major criminal case. And also there’s risk factors for searchers.”
VERMONT STATE POLICE SEARCH AND RESCUE UNIT
Cushing describes 9-1-1 search and rescue calls as “just like any other incident.” When someone calls 9-1-1 in Vermont for an overdue recreationalist or any other kind of missing person, a trooper contacts the person making the report and completes a lost person questionnaire. That trooper’s supervisor reviews the questionnaire and formulates a plan.
If that plan involves calling the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Unit, Cushing engages in further evaluation. “When I get the call I assess the situation and assess what they have for information. We have search urgency guidelines that we go by. We look at the factors. Is it a missing child? Is it an Alzheimer’s patient? We look at the person’s background for factors that indicate that a situation is urgent, and we assign a number to it based on these factors. Low number means lower urgency, lower response.”
Cushing is a former K9 handler who has been team leader of Search and Rescue for three and a half years. “My day job is to supervise investigations in the St. Johnsbury area. The other hat I wear is as team leader for Search and Rescue. That’s how all our special teams are, we wear multiple hats. We have 20 guys and gals on the team that are sergeants and troopers in their day jobs.”
If the response analysis numbers warrant it, Cushing calls out his team members directly. There are 18 Vermont state troopers assigned to the Search and Rescue Unit, but “because we wear two hats, if I want to call all 18 members of the team, you might get 10,” Cushing says. “They may be on vacation, or out, or may just have two troopers on and not be able to come. Obviously there’s a delay in response. If I get a call at night, I’m up here so if we have a response in Bennington you have to add travel time so it’s a couple hour response time a lot of the time.” Since the troopers assigned to the Search and Rescue Unit are all over the state, “the biggest thing with the way it’s set up is that the resource is spread out.”
The usual extended delay in response time of the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Unit was not the primary reason that a ground search for Levi Duclos did not occur on the night of Jan. 9, however. The Search and Rescue Unit could not possibly have engaged in a timely response that night because they were never informed that Duclos was reported missing. The New Haven barracks of the Vermont State Police did not notify the Search and Rescue Unit until shortly before going off-shift at 2 a.m. Vermont has no state police coverage from 2 a.m. until 7 a.m.
“I was notified of Levi’s case at 1:30 a.m. by the New Haven barracks,” said Cushing. “I can’t comment more, it’s an open investigation. We had formulated a plan to go out the next day.”
AVAILABLE RESOURCES: NO REASON NOT TO GO
The Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Unit is not the only resource upon which the New Haven barracks could have called to assist in the search for Levi Duclos. The Emily Proctor Trail traverses the Bread Loaf Wilderness area of the Green Mountain National Forest, connecting with the Cooley Glen and Long Trail to form a popular 12-mile loop that lies in the towns of Ripton and Lincoln. Both towns have first responders associated with their fire departments, staffed by volunteers who are intimately familiar with this terrain from hunting, hiking and rescuing dozens of other lost or injured hikers. Had the call come in as an injured hiker rather than an overdue hiker, these two entities would have been the primary responders.
“We heard about it on the news as did the rest of the town,” says Ripton first responder team member Ed Sullivan, an employee of Middlebury College. Ripton was never officially notified that there was a missing hiker, nor were they requested to participate in his recovery.
“Vermont State Police called us at 1 or 2 (p.m.) the next day to help in recovering Levi’s body,” said Dan Ober, chief of the Lincoln Fire Company and director of the Lincoln first responder team.
Had Lincoln first responders been dispatched to respond to an injured hiker in the area, they would have had boots on the ground in short order. “When we get a call, we meet at the fire station with our gear, find whatever information we can about the last sighting of the people, and set up a plan. We can have a team ready in the evenings or weekends in a half hour,” Ober said. “During the day, when people are gone to work, it might take a little longer as we have to call people in from adjoining towns. We’ve sometimes called on Bristol Rescue or other adjoining rescue squads or fire departments.”
The failure to call on skilled, available assistance does not sit well with the first responders. “There was no reason not to go that night. It was a clear night and relatively warm. The state police had the resources available but decided not to go until the next shift, which starts at 7 a.m. We have the resources here, and we are volunteers, so it’s not even a monetary thing,” Ober said. “We would have loved to go up. Everyone in this town is upset about it.”
Ober’s distress is shared by Mike Cannon, a Colchester police officer passionately dedicated to the Colchester Technical Rescue team, a municipal organization similar to Stowe Mountain Rescue with an emphasis on waterway and woodland search and rescue. Colchester and Stowe both have memorandums of agreement with the Vermont Department of Public Safety to provide search and rescue aid, and can have teams on the ground in most areas of the state within two or three hours. Like Ripton first responders, they were not called until state police required aid in recovering Duclos’ body.
“I’m pretty upset that this kid died. We debriefed afterwards and we were all shaking our heads,” Cannon said. “This has been a stomachache for us since we went down there. Had we been called on this, we would have gone right out. We got called the next day, well after the fact.”
Colchester Technical Rescue could have been on the ground in short order, Cannon said.
“If the call had come in here in Colchester, we would organize and go,” Cannon said. “Our normal response may not be to send 14 people up the trail immediately but we’d send two guys out on a hasty search. Stowe Mountain Rescue and our team do a fair amount of missing people searches and in all kinds of weather, late at night, rain, sleet, and if you do it right, you minimize the risk.”
Conditions the night of Jan. 9 were far milder than Colchester Rescue often faces.
“That night, it was 28 degrees at my house and got to the single digits on the mountain, but it was a beautiful moonlit night, with a clear sky, the stars were out. It would have been a great night to be out there,” Cannon said, “not the kind of conditions we usually are facing because mostly these calls come in during rain or snow or sleet.”
Vermont State Police did not call Stowe Mountain Rescue to search for Duclos, nor did anyone call the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), according to Matt Fraley, the Addison County CERT team director and member of the Vergennes Fire Department. CERT, the volunteer team formed as part of a national Homeland Security effort, is available to assist any law enforcement or emergency management entity in Vermont, and has ground teams in every county.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife wardens are also available to participate in any law enforcement function including search and rescue.
“We cooperate when requested by the state police but they are the ones deciding what services are required,” says Corporal Dave LeCours of Vermont Fish and Wildlife. “We’ve always been a willing participant in search and rescue when called on, and our wardens have intimate knowledge of the ground and land navigation skills.”
State police did not request the assistance of local game warden Dale Whitlock, an Addison County resident who is well familiar with the area’s woodlands and mountain trails until the morning following Duclos’ disappearance.
“They did page me a bit after 6 a.m. the next morning, but I was at the police academy down in Pittsford at the time,” Whitlock said.
While state police did not call on any outside resources to search for Duclos the night he was reported missing, Cushing, the state police Search and Rescue unit team leader, credits those resources with making search and rescue in Vermont work.
“I do think that the present situation works as far as search and rescue goes in Vermont, as long as we have these outside interests assisting us,” said Cushing. “We couldn’t do what we do without them. The problem is we don’t see a lot of people asking to help.”
Other entities, however, say that the Vermont State Police has rejected offers of additional help.
“Some years ago I took the NASAR (National Association for Search and Rescue) three-day training class they held here in Vermont, and I was very interested in learning more about search and rescue and acquiring whatever certifications were required to get involved in that. I’m an avid hiker and fisherman so it interested me,” said Bristol EMT McCausland. “But I later came to understand that the Vermont State Police has sole jurisdiction and didn’t want or need civilian personnel because they said people would just be messing up the tracks and interfering with them. So I just gave up.”
The Vermont Outdoor Guide Association, a nonprofit professional association for fishing and hunting guides, horseback and dogsled outfits and a spectrum of recreation tourism resources, had similarly approached the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Unit some years ago, requesting that VSP join its annual meeting to discuss how VOGA’s backcountry-savvy members could be of use in search and rescue. Their offer was dismissed out of hand, according to VOGA director Gray Stevens, with VSP advising that they were simply unqualified and unnecessary.
“It’s risky to send people into the woods who aren’t trained,” Cushing said. “Everyone wants to help and find the person and complete the mission. But you don’t want people getting hurt.”
HOW OTHER STATES FIND MISSING OUTDOORSPEOPLE
Vermont’s reliance on state police for backcountry search and rescue is somewhat unusual. Only a small handful of states name their state police, who are usually assigned to highway patrol or specialized crime scene investigation, to the job of finding missing hunters, hikers and climbers, according to Howard Paul, public information officer and member of the board of directors of the National Association for Search and Rescue. County sheriffs are the most common lead agencies for search and rescue in Western states.
Regardless of who is officially the lead public agency, search and rescue is primarily a volunteer function throughout the country. “The vast majority of states have agreements with nonprofits,” Paul said. “In Western states it’s probably 100 percent, and in New Mexico and Alaska even though the state police are officially in charge there, they rely heavily on nonprofits to do the legwork of search and rescue.”
In neighboring New Hampshire and Maine, which have similar terrain and experience tourist and outdoor recreationalist use similar to Vermont’s, state Fish and Game agencies are in charge of finding lost outdoorspeople. They do so with the assistance of a host of skilled nonprofit entities.
In Vermont, despite the Green Mountain National Forest dominating the woodlands used for recreation in the state, there is virtually no federal assistance for search and rescue.
“In search and rescue our most common contribution is local knowledge of the land and trails,” says Steve Burd, USFS zone supervisor for the Allegheny, White and Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests. “We provide maps and advice as to the trail locations and conditions. Other employees, the people who build and maintain the trails, are called in. If we get called the officers can reach out to the recreation or timber staff to share their knowledge of the land.”
Federal law enforcement officers — all two of them — can occasionally take an active role in a search. “On the Green Mountain National Forest, we have two law enforcement officers, one in Rochester and one in Manchester. We also have one criminal investigator,” Burd says.
In 2011, National Forest personnel assisted in 12 search and rescue incidents, as well as aiding in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. Unlike national parks, which are staffed by large numbers of park rangers, national forests have minimal personnel. Despite the shift in national forest use over the last 20 years from predominantly timber resource extraction to a multi-use recreational resource, law enforcement staffing levels have not been altered.
In many cases of people lost on the Green Mountain National Forest, federal officials are not even notified. “In the case of Levi Duclos, we were called the next morning, the morning of the 10th, by both the Department of Public Safety dispatcher and a game warden who I believe was on scene,” Burd says.
The federal government does pay the state police and several Vermont sheriffs’ departments for patrol services in National Forest areas, and has a cooperation agreement allowing Vermont State Police to use motorized vehicles in wilderness areas in life-or-death situations. Although the national forest attracts scores of outdoor recreationalists to Vermont, the U.S. Forest Service makes virtually no contribution to funding Vermont search and rescue efforts on the National Forest.
THE VSP MANDATE
In the end, Vermont State Police maintain primary control over most lost recreationalist incidents in Vermont. This is because the search and rescue function is not only legislatively mandated, according to Cushing, but the raison d’être of the Vermont State Police.
“A Bennington College student went missing, and that’s how Vermont State Police arose,” Cushing says, referencing the disappearance of Paula Jean Weldon, who was last seen on an afternoon walk on the Long Trail outside Bennington in December 1946. Paula’s wealthy industrial engineer father in Connecticut, William Archibald Weldon, hired in Connecticut State Police as private investigators when Vermont’s local sheriff departments failed to find his daughter. The Connecticut State Police, joined by New York State Police and later FBI agents, also failed to locate Paula, but Weldon’s bitter complaints to the Vermont Legislature tipped the balance in favor of parties who had been advocating for development of a unified statewide policing agency. Despite the creation of the Vermont State Police a few months later, there was no trace.
Paula Weldon was never found.
The notion that search and rescue in Vermont has been mandated as the exclusive province of the Vermont State Police is not necessarily supported by a reading of the statutes, however. “Law enforcement is usually mandated for missing people in Vermont, but it’s not that clear,” said Cannon. “You have to take a close look at the statute and have to interpret it.”
The authorization statute creating the Vermont Department of Public Safety merely directs the department “to participate in searches for lost or missing persons.” The state missing persons statute imposes additional duties on the state police in regards to fulfilling Amber Alert and federal reporting requirements and allows the commissioner of Public Safety to assume lead agency status on any “missing person” case, but the definition of “missing person” to which this applies is restricted to children and people with mental or physical disabilities who cannot be located, and does not include overdue recreationalists unless they happen to meet this definition.
Other entities in Vermont do have authority to engage in search and rescue. The state Aeronautics Board, for example, is designated as the lead agency for search and rescue of persons lost in airplane accidents.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife wardens have “the same law enforcement authority, duties and power as state police, sheriffs, constables and municipal police,” according to their authorizing statute. Thus if the state police are charged with participating in the search for lost persons, Fish and Wildlife wardens are equally charged with the same duty. The dispatch of state police rather game wardens or other entities in calls of missing recreationalists appears to be more a matter of procedural fiat than statutory mandate.
While the Vermont Department of Forest Parks and Recreations’ Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan 2005-2009 indicates that significant increases in outdoor recreation activities in Vermont, and calls for further increases in a wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities, it makes no mention of the increased incidences or costs of emergency medical and search and rescue response to match that increased use. U.S. Forest Service planning and evaluation documents also reflect increases in a wide variety of recreational uses of the Green Mountain National Forest lands, with no plan for the funding or additional services needed for injured or lost recreationalists.
“Someone needs to take a real hard look at this,” said Mike Cannon of Colchester Technical Rescue. “When a call comes in, is it a missing person, like a law enforcement situation, or someone in need of rescue? New Hampshire and Maine for backcountry rescue mandates the warden service, and those people spend a lot of time in the woods. It’s frustrating. Fish and Wildlife are far better suited to do outdoor search and rescue. Other states have figured it out.”
Cindy Ellen Hill is a law and policy writer and attorney in Middlebury.
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