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Editorial: With search and rescue, it’s time to junk the jalopy

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Posted on February 21, 2013 |
By Angelo Lynn



Here’s the nut of what is happening with the proposed changes in the Search and Rescue bill, H.182, being discussed in the Vermont House Governmental Operations committee: The Vermont State Police botched a search mission for 19-year-old Levi Duclos a year ago January, and a summer study committee decided the wise thing to do was give the State Police even more money and power to keep control of search and rescue operations.

That is incredible. Screw it up and get rewarded with a bigger budget. No wonder the public has such little faith in the political system.

To be fair, State Police must accept new protocols mandated in the proposed legislation, such as being required to immediately notify local fire departments upon receiving a search and rescue call, and sharing incident command with local police and fire departments. Both changes are currently mandated in an interim law until new legislation is implemented.

But that hints at the problem’s core. The culture of the State Police is to think of themselves as the top of the food chain. They dictate, others respond. That mentality doesn’t bode well for sharing authority in critical situations.

John Wood, co-chair of the summer study committee and deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety, admits the problem in a story in today’s Addison Independent (see Page 1A.) “I can tell you from experience as a fire chief in the state for 30 some odd years, there was and had been this perception that they didn’t call out the locals…… And it would irritate the local people and the local responders. That has been a longstanding issue,” but then Wood says the State Police have changed and they’re more willing to play nice these days. “You’re always going to have this tit for tat thing going on with some local agencies with the State Police, but for the most part, when the bells hit and there’s an emergency, everybody comes together and they work just fine.”

Tit for tat antagonism? For the most part? Working together just fine?

That’s not good enough.

Dedicated rescue personnel will tell you when a life’s on the line, they respond quickly and professionally with no bull going on anywhere and everyone is onboard as a unified team committed to a common objective.

Woods made the analogy that when a car needs an oil change, you don’t not toss out the car and get a new one, you change the oil. It’s a good line, but somehow, the following scenario doesn’t jell: a search and recuse calls comes in, local units respond and have volunteers out in the field; two hours later the state police commander arrives and assumes what role? Leader? Coordinator? Volunteer searcher?

The Government Operations Committee should review that scenario and consider these concerns:

• That legislative mandates were put in place to ensure State Police respond to emergency search and rescue missions in the most obvious ways should raise red flags to every legislator in Montpelier. Seriously, you shouldn’t have to mandate common sense, unless the culture to share information and responsibility is so foreign to the State Police it has to be a crime to get them to obey.

• That if a search and rescue mission conflicted with a unrelated crime scene, the crime scene would take precedence — leaving the search and rescue mission to regroup and replace those positions occupied by the State Police (which at the very least could delay the mission.)

• That left to their own devices and control over a few years, State Police will implement practices and proceedures that are steeped in State Police training and will again wind up with a search and rescue system that at its very core is inept.

• Finally, part of the proposal is to finance a full-time search and rescue coordinator position as well as to form a Search and Rescue Council. The coodinator would be a civilian employee charged with public outreach and education, as well as technical assistance to search and rescue operations. Great. Here comes another round of costly regulations and standards that volunteer departments have to meet — all at additional cost and added burden to the volunteers. The result? Fewer people willing to spend the time to pass new tests and standards, and more costs to towns. (Read the section: SAR Coordinator and Council as headlined in bold half way through the story.)

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Why be so permissimistic about the State Police’s ability to effectively manage search and rescue missions? Because their very structure is not locally based. Rescue team leaders are spread far and wide across the state, often taking several hours to drive to the scene, only to have to be debriefed by those locals in charge once they arrive. Because State Police also would likely be unfamiliar with the terrain and hiking trails, locals would need to take the lead and organize a viable search plan. The arrival of the State Police, in many cases, would only slow down the operation.

It is, in short, an inappropriate chain of command with all the knowledge and ability to respond lying with the local forces and all the power given to the State Police. It is little wonder that Wood, in his capacity in Public Safety, likes the plan. Under the proposed legislation, they get the money to build a stronger force, but have little role in conducting the searches.

Nor do we want to unduly put the onus on Mr. Wood. We respect the summer committee’s work on the issue and acknowledge that there might not be a better agency on which to give this responsibility, especially if the Fish & Wildlife Department says it doesn’t have the capacity or the willingness to take on the mission.

That said, someone on the committee ought to have the gumption to suggest running an alternative plan and budget up the flag pole, including thinking outside the box. For example, rather than give the search and rescue money to the Department of Public Safety, give it to local police and fire departments. Let them build these units locally. Why? First, because all the action is going to happen there anyway. Second, because the local forces could use the money. Third, because if you give it to the State Police they’ll use it for their own devices, bureaucracy grows, cost of government goes up, taxpayers pay more — and, chances are, you won’t see the results you had hoped to accomplish.

Committee members should understand that search and rescue missions are not rocket science. For 99 percent of the cases, you don’t need to be skilled in police work. What’s critical is a timely response, good familiarity with local hiking trails and backcountry terrain, and a list of rescue members who know backcountry survival skills and search protocols that will allow them to head out in any weather conditions and do so safely. That’s readily available in every county in the state, and they are the friends and neighbors who want to help. The State Police should be involved, certainly. Their dispatching system is already in place and is necessary to receive 911 calls and respond accordingly; and a state trooper should be dispatched to the scene in case a criminal element evolves and for the trained manpower that may be needed. They are good at what they do.

But this is one of those cases in which, contrary to what Woods says, it truly is better to cut your losses with the old jalopy (the State Police were formed in 1947 to handle search and rescue missions) and get a new car — this time with a crew of local mechanics who understand how to keep things running smoothly.

Angelo S. Lynn

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