Editorial: A light in the darkness

On Tuesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin gave a hug to Starksboro resident Kathy Duclos after a staged signing of a bill that seeks to revamp how the state conducts its search and rescue operations. The bill was sparked by the death of 19-year-old Levi Duclos, a Middlebury resident, who died of hypothermia three miles from the trailhead of a popular hiking area in Ripton. While his family searched into the night for the missing hiker, state police took the call at approximately 8 p.m. that winter night, but failed to send out a search party until the next morning.
As an interim policy, and in a direct refutation of the state police’s handling of this case, the state police have been directed to respond immediately to all future calls of this nature and share the information with local fire and rescue organizations. A summer study committee will also review the existing search and rescue system and make a recommendation on how to improve it.
The bill and the legislative hearings held this winter were too kind to the state police. Too many excuses were accepted by legislators for the state police’s lack of response; too many legislators defended what was nothing less than blatant inattentiveness to the seriousness of the call; and too much credit is given to the state police as the organization best suited to respond to calls in which volunteers must be assembled, organized and motivated to search mountain trails for missing hikers in the dead of winter throughout the night. Indeed, on this last point, the opposite could be argued.
I spent several years in my twenties as an employee of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and, as a rock climber, was on the rescue team there. When the call came, whether we were sleeping, eating Thanksgiving dinner, working on the trails, or in a game of volleyball at the end of the day, no one ever hesitated to drop what they were doing and sprint into action. No meetings were called; no conferencing and worrying about protocol. Rather, we each doubled checked our climbing gear, carry-out sled, enough strong backs to get the person out, crampons and ice-axes in winter, warm and rain-proof clothing, sleeping bags and a light-weight bivouac bag in case we were out all night, headlamps and extra batteries, and we planned on the fly, staying in radio contact to get the best information available while driving to the designated trailhead.
Speed to location and getting boots on the ground in a search of the missing or injured person is arguably a more valuable skill set than the overly cautious and defensive approach that is more typical of police work in which forensics is the modus operandi and suspicion of others is the mindset. Moreover, it’s helpful for those leading the search and rescue operation to know the area in which the search is being conducted. Because the state police currently are spread thin in Vermont and the designated officers for such searches often have to drive hours to the site, they are almost assuredly not familiar with the local trails, making their leadership in such situations limited at best, and their speed to location becomes a real detriment to the process.
This is not a rant against the state police; rather it is recognizing what that force is designed to do and what it is not. The state police pursue criminals and criminal activity, and respond to citizen complaints or concerns that almost always can be solved within close proximity to their patrol cars. As citizens we need them in that capacity; we don’t necessarily want them spending hours or days hiking the backwoods.
They can field the calls, determine the nature of the case and make the initial contact to local rescue operations. They can also help coordinate the search and provide backup and leadership in other areas, but let’s turn the initial search and rescue over to other groups or organizations that are familiar with the local hiking trails and the backcountry of the region and are geared to move quickly, skillfully and with a sense that their neighbors’ lives depend on them.

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