House committees tweaking search and rescue bills

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Search and Rescue bill, H.182, is moving forward through the Legislature. After substantially bolstering the bill proposed by a summer study committee, the House Government Operations committee last Thursday approved the bill and passed it on to the House Appropriations Committee.
Appropriations the next day voted out the bill with only a minor technical change.
Among the changes made by Government Operations was codifying the creation of a statewide “Search and Rescue Coordinator” position. However, a specific appropriation for it was removed from the bill.
“The bill as it stands now states that the SAR coordinator position is established and the Department of Public Safety will have to pay for it within their present budget. They said they can do this but at the expense of something else,” said Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, chair of House Government Operations.
Funding for the program may be discussed again at the Senate.
Vermont Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Wood confirmed that his agency would be able to implement the unfunded mandate and move forward with enacting the coordinator’s position if the bill passes the full Legislature in its present form.
“It’s just a different way of providing the position,” he stated, indicating that funds would be found from within the approved DPS budget.
With the OK from both committees, the search and rescue bill will now go to the full House for second and third readings and a vote, before being sent to the Senate, Sweaney said. She said it will comfortably meet the crossover deadline — the deadline for sending House bills to the Senate and vice versa.
Although it is uncertain at this point which Senate committee will consider the bill, neither Sweaney nor Wood anticipate major hurdles to the bill’s passage in the Senate.
Changes to the way state police handle search and rescue for individuals lost in Vermont’s mountains and backcountry were sparked by the death of Levi Duclos last year. The 19-year-old New Haven resident was found dead of hypothermia on a Ripton hiking trail after state police failed to initiate a ground search for more than 12 hours after he was reported missing on a frigid night in January 2012. Public criticisms of state police handling of the matter spurred the Legislature to adopt interim search and rescue protocols and to direct a summer study committee to recommend a permanent plan for effective search and rescue across the state.
While members of the Duclos family have urged the Legislature to remove the search and rescue function from the purview of the state police and locate it in another agency such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife, spokesperson Kathy Duclos expressed approval that the bill was moving forward through the legislative process and that creation of a statewide coordinator as well as an oversight council had been included in the legislation.
Editor’s note: Cindy Hill is a freelance writer who can be reached at wordwomanvt@yahoo.com.

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