Panel puts VSP at lead in search and rescue

MONTPELIER — The Search and Rescue Strategic Plan Development Committee has completed its work, approving recommendations and proposed statutory changes to be presented to the upcoming Legislative session. Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, and former state police search and rescue team leader Jocelyn Stohl abstained from the vote taken at the Committee’s fourth and final meeting in Montpelier Oct. 24.
The Committee was created by the Vermont Legislature to re-think the state’s search and rescue response protocols after the death of 19-year-old Levi Duclos of New Haven on a trail in Ripton last January. State police were criticized for their untimely response to the report that Duclos had not returned home when expected from an afternoon hike.
The adopted recommendations designate the Vermont State Police as the primary entity — Agency Having Jurisdiction or AHJ — for backcountry search and rescue throughout Vermont. State police could create up to four regional SAR teams comprised of state police along with any volunteer resources they deem necessary.
The Committee envisioned a Vermont Search and Rescue Resource Working Group to advise the state police as to the training and qualification standards necessary for any volunteer resources in these regional teams; a SAR Advisory Council to evaluate the recommendations of the Working Group and make an annual report to the Legislature; and creation of a new civilian position of SAR Coordinator, to be located within the department of public safety and tasked to work with the state police Public Information Officer on distributing safe-hiking messages to the public. The Committee also supported close coordination between state police and Vermont Fish and Wildlife wardens who have unique backcountry skills.
The Committee did not adopt any mechanisms to ensure that their recommendations were enacted, however, and did not include any of these recommendations in their proposed statutory changes or request specific funding from the Legislature.
The proposed statutory changes would amend Vermont’s missing person statute to give the commissioner of public safety jurisdiction over all SAR operations. Local law enforcement agencies receiving a call that someone is missing or lost in backcountry, remote areas or navigable waters would be required to both respond with all due haste and to notify state police of the circumstances. While the Committee had extensively discussed the need to have all incoming SAR calls evaluated promptly by an individual trained in search and rescue management, the proposed statute merely requires notification of the state police, with no mandate that the call be directed to a SAR professional within the department.
Rescue personnel on the Committee praised the recommendations as a substantial improvement over the ad hoc responses to SAR calls that occurred prior to the Legislature’s adoption of interim SAR protocols this past spring. Neil Van Dyke, head of Stowe Mountain Rescue, put forth the motion to adopt the plan, and Colchester Technical Rescue Team Leader Mike Cannon, Essex EMS Greg Wolfe, and Grand Isle Sheriff Ray Allen were among those who voted to approve the report.
“There’s certainly holes in it and areas that are gray, but you have to start somewhere,” said Deputy Middlebury Fire Chief Dave Shaw, a member of the Committee. “We had nothing a year ago, now we have the interim protocol and this report.”
The interim protocol has worked well, according to Shaw.
“I’m as skeptical as everyone else that the state police can’t govern themselves,” he said. “They are less than forthright when they’ve made an error. But this report puts checks and balances in place, and the oversight committee it establishes will ask tough questions. We can’t bring Levi back but we can prevent this from happening again.”
Jewett, who initiated the SAR interim protocol and the Legislature’s call for a strategic plan committee, abstained from the vote approving the Committee’s report, citing insufficiencies in the plan that have yet to be resolved.
“The work done was good and it moved the ball forward, but it’s not enough,” Jewett said, noting that from his home, he can see the mountainside where Levi Duclos died. “The locals who didn’t get called out that night are my friends and neighbors. I don’t think we — not just this committee but the state as a whole — have recognized how deeply our confidence in the response to this situation was shaken. The simple statement is we failed Levi and we failed his family that night and we failed the state of Vermont.”
Jewett expressed concern that issues of transparency, accountability and oversight had not been adequately resolved in the Committee’s recommended plan. He noted that the creation of two entities, the SAR Working Group and a SAR Advisory Council, creates confusion, while the anticipated coordination between the state police and Fish and Wildlife was not formalized.
“This doesn’t make the grade yet,” Jewett stated, informing the committee of his intention to submit more comprehensive Legislation in the next Legislative session clarifying these elements.
Retired Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Team Leader Jocelyn Stohl, now working as a search and rescue training consultant, also abstained from the Committee vote, urging the group to take more time to reflect on the final report, which had just been delivered to Committee members the evening prior to the meeting.
“I have some concerns and think there is unfinished business,” Stohl told the Committee prior to the vote. “We are allowed one more meeting. Why is there such urgency that we conclude it all today?” Despite her objections, Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Grand Isle and Committee co-chair, called the motion and pressed through passage of the report.
“I need time with the changes,” Stohl said after the meeting. “It would have done us well to be able to go home, receive a clean copy, ask questions and make comments. We had until Dec. 15 to hold five meetings, but it seemed like today there was some kind of urgency to accept it and move on it.
“Sitting here today we are seeing a lot of new information that is in that report that I never envisioned seeing and to approve the report, I’d like to know they know about it.”
Stohl shared Jewett’s concerns about accountability and the creation of a police-dominated search and rescue environment. Most critically, the Committee’s recommendations do not ensure that search and rescue calls will be promptly routed to search and rescue personnel with sufficient training and knowledge to appropriately assess the search urgency and required response, according to Stohl. She advised the Committee during its considerations that the establishment of four regional teams could result in increased delays in initiating effective search responses rather than improve response times.
“That has been a downfall that has carried for years,” Stohl said in a later interview. “If we look at what went wrong in January we’d like to see that clearly those things were remedied.”
Kathy Duclos, Levi’s Duclos’s aunt, praised the work the Committee members engaged in, but noted that “the wind was taken out of the Committee’s sails once the message came from the governor that the Vermont State Police would remain in charge of SAR. The recommendations of the VSP were pretty much rubber stamped after that.”
She shared Jewett’s observation that the partnership with Fish and Wildlife was not reflected in the Committee’s recommendations.
“I am disturbed by the makeup of the proposed oversight group, the ‘Advisory Council,’” Duclos said. “It would include 12 members, three of them from the VSP and only one from its ‘partner’ Fish and Wildlife. The fox is planning on continuing to guard its henhouse.”
No further hearings or public input on the plan are anticipated by the Committee. The proposal will go before the Legislature in January 2013.
Download the Committee’s full report at http://www.leg.state.vt.us/reports/2012ExternalReports/283469.pdf.
Freelance reporter Cindy Ellen Hill is at [email protected].

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