Vt. House updates search and rescue policy

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House on Thursday voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would revamp the state’s search-and-rescue policy in wake of the tragic death of 19-year-old Levi Duclos on a Ripton hiking trail this past January.
The legislation would set up some interim rules requiring Vermont Department of Public Safety, with the help of local emergency organizations, to immediately respond “to every search and rescue call for help, which shall include an immediate call to the department’s search and rescue team.”
Bill H.794 also calls for a study committee to evaluate Vermont’s public safety resources — along with search policies in other states — and recommend a “permanent organizational structure to manage search and rescue operations.”
This legislation was a direct response to 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. His family got concerned when Levi hadn’t returned as scheduled early that evening and contacted authorities. Duclos died of hypothermia around three miles from the trailhead.
Duclos’s 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 specifically trained in mountain rescues.
The new legislation, supporters believe, will guarantee swifter, broader action when hikers go missing.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, was a strong advocate for the H.794. Jewett is the House assistant majority leader and a member of the House Government Operations Committee that examined the Duclos case and evaluated steps the state could take to prevent future tragedies.
“Levi’s death was a great loss,” Jewett told his House colleagues while advocating for H.794 on Thursday. “It was a tragedy that echoed into the community and across the state.
“This bill is born of that tragedy,” he added. “We can not bring Levi back but, perhaps, we can help all of those grieving his loss to find some closure.”
The state Senate was expected to endorse a similar version of H.794  on Friday, April 20, or sometime this week, as the Legislature heads for adjournment.
Vermont Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, has been an active proponent of enhancing the state’s search and rescue policies in the aftermath of the Duclos tragedy.
“What was frustration boiling under the surface erupted, to a point where it forced the Legislature to react,” Illuzzi said, adding he believes the General Assembly should be more proactive in dealing with such matters.
“I think we owe it to that family and to the memory of Levi Duclos,” he said. “As an elected official, I am very troubled that it took (Levi’s) death to bring public attention to this issue.
“It’s a failing of government.”
Kathy Duclos, Levi’s aunt and a family spokesperson, could not be reached for comment for this story as the Addison Independent went to press.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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