MONTPELIER — The Search and Rescue Strategic Plan Committee pressed forward with its legislative mandate to restructure search and rescue management in Vermont at the second of its five scheduled meetings in Montpelier last Wednesday.
Tensions remained high over the ultimate question for the committee’s consideration: Whether the lead agency for search and rescue in the Green Mountain State should remain under the aegis of the Vermont State Police, which presently funds that role primarily through its overtime budget, or transfer to the purview of the Fish and Wildlife Department game wardens.
On a golden August afternoon beneath the Statehouse dome, it was hard to envision an athletic young man freezing to death on the same Green Mountain hiking trails that are now crowded with seasonal tourists. For members of the Search and Rescue Strategic Plan Committee, that image provided focus for their work, prompted by the watchful presence of Carol Ault and Kathy Duclos. The two are aunts of Levi Duclos, the 19-year-old New Haven resident who was found on a Ripton hiking trail, dead of hypothermia, after state police failed to initiate a ground search for more than 12 hours after he was reported missing on a frigid night this past January. Public criticisms of state police handling of the matter spurred the Legislature to adopt interim protocols for search and rescue (often referred to simply as SAR) and to direct the Strategic Plan Committee to recommend a permanent plan for effective search and rescue across the state.
Kathy Duclos said she was “impressed and gratified” with the committee members’ work to date, noting that the committee and the legislative council support staff “are working hard and seriously toward accomplishing their task.” There remains much to accomplish before the committee’s final report to the Legislature in December, however, and much of that work rides on the as-yet unanswered question of who will be in charge.
CHAOS, COORDINATOR AND COUNCILS
Game wardens are the natural choice for backcountry search and rescue operations because of the nature of their jobs, Maj. Dennis Reinhardt, Vermont’s deputy chief warden told the committee last week.
“There seems to be a question as to why game wardens are not in charge of that here like they are in other states,” Reinhardt said. “We are out in the woods all the time. We expect our wardens to have a very high level of land navigation skills. We are well versed in operation of all kinds of outdoor equipment.”
All Vermont game wardens meet the standards of the leading search and rescue credentialing agencies, and a warden is often present in a supporting role at search and rescues being managed by Vermont State Police. “It’s important that search managers have boots-on-the-ground experience,” he said, speaking from over 25 years of personal experience participating in backwoods searches in Vermont.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife personnel spent a significant amount of time over the last six months examining how their agency would manage search and rescue if appointed the task, Reinhardt reported. They scrutinized models from New Mexico, New Hampshire and Maine, focusing on the most successful elements of each.
Key among the proposed Fish and Wildlife approach would be creation of two civilian positions, that of statewide search and rescue coordinator, and an assistant. An initial task of these positions would be public outreach in a pro-active attempt to reduce search and rescue calls for outdoor recreationalists.
“One area is mountain safety, helping people be prepared for outdoors in the mountains, what they might expect if they get in trouble,” Reinhardt said. A second area for public outreach would be education regarding the increased risks of persons with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease wandering away in light of an aging population.
Another role for a statewide coordinator would be heading up a nonprofit search and rescue council that could function to raise money, issue grants, coordinate trainings and enter into memorandums of understanding with other public agencies and volunteer organizations like the Green Mountain Club and specialized teams like Colchester and Upper Valley Search and Rescue.
“Every search begins in chaos,” Reinhardt told the committee. “Clear expectations and responsibilities would help to calm that.”
A search and rescue coordinator would be able to help establish a clear understanding of everyone’s role before the chaos starts, he explained.
Some committee members took umbrage at the use of the word “chaos,” but Reinhardt defended his choice of words in a later interview. The word was used at a National Association of Search and Rescue conference he had recently attended to describe the initial stages of a search.
“It was a true representation of the atmosphere that occurs frequently, regardless of the jurisdictional authority,” he stated. “If you can imagine the sense of urgency in planning a well-organized search in the midst of upset friends and family, compounded by the missing being a child or elderly person, you get the idea.”
While there is no way to completely eliminate the chaos, Reinhardt asserts that sufficient pre-planning can relieve as much of the chaos as possible so that the search managers can focus and act quickly.
Having one agency in charge of search and rescue, and a single statewide coordinator acting as point person, has contributed significantly to Maine’s positive reputation for professional handling of backcountry search and rescue.
“When you have one agency it’s better, because you see so many search and rescue cases you get better at them,” Lt. Kevin Adams, an officer in the Maine State Warden Service and the state’s Search and Rescue Coordinator, said in an earlier interview.
Having a single search and rescue coordinator also simplifies matters, Adams believes.
“Everybody knows who to call,” he said.
Dave Shaw, assistant chief of the Middlebury Fire Department, representing volunteer firefighters on the committee, applauded Maj. Reinhardt’s attention to public outreach.
“I’m happy to hear you say it won’t be business as usual because that’s why we are here today,” Shaw said. “A pro-active approach is needed. We have people outdoors in the state who don’t know what the hell they are getting into, if they are out in the woods and bad weather is coming.”
The Duclos family was heartened by Fish and Wildlife’s thoroughness.
“We were pleased to hear Maj. Reinhardt’s presentation regarding the desire of Fish & Wildlife to take over the running of SAR,” Kathy Duclos said. “They have looked carefully at it and have a good plan. They are thinking outside the box in their long range planning for improvements.”
EXPENSE AND INSURANCE
Committee chair Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, listened intently to Reinhardt’s presentation, then cut to the chase, asking “What’s it going to cost?” He noted that the VSP is already providing the service out of its annual budget.
Reinhardt said Fish and Wildlife had comfortably estimated costs of $300,000 annually for the initial three years, indicating that he hoped the state’s General Fund would cover the costs, so that the fiscal burden would not fall on hunting and fishing licensing fees. Recreational hikers, skiers and boaters are the primary recipients of search and rescue services, rather than hunters and anglers.
“What are the benefits of spending $300,000 and giving it to Fish and Wildlife instead of leaving it in VSP and enhancing that program there?” John Wood, deputy commissioner of Public Safety and co-chair of the committee, asked pointedly.
“I think that we can all assume that when we are done with this process there will be a different model in place to manage SAR in Vermont,” interjected Neil Van Dyke of Stowe Mountain Rescue. “We are not comparing $300,000 with the status quo.”
Vermont State Police Capt. Robert Evans explained that the present costs of his agency’s search and rescue services is about $93,000 a year, more than half of which is overtime payments for troopers engaged in search and rescue duties — costs which presumably would be significantly reduced if primary responsibility for search and rescue transferred to Fish and Wildlife. The VSP would also be requesting additional funds if they continue their lead search and rescue role under the committee’s revised plan.
“We would be stretched if we didn’t have resources. There will be a cost associated with this,” Evans said, admitting that if the state police hired a statewide search and rescue coordinator, his agency’s cost projections would likely be similar to those proffered by Fish and Wildlife. “It’s expensive but we would do it right.”
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, noted that the Vermont State Police presently only have a small team of designated search and rescue personnel, while the state has well over 40 game wardens.
“New Hampshire responded to over 140 search and rescue calls last year, which is far more than Vermont does, with about the same number of wardens,” said Jocelyn Stohl, retired team leader of the VSP search and rescue team and a private search and rescue trainer and consultant.
The committee has not yet addressed other potential income streams for search and rescue funding. Other states and regions employ a variety of fundraising strategies, often through their nonprofit search and rescue councils. The state of Colorado, for example, sells popular outdoor recreation safety cards as a means of voluntary contribution to search and rescue for hikers and skiers. Many states include small surcharges on not only hunting and fishing licenses but also boat, ATV and snowmobile registrations. Sheriff’s departments and nonprofit civilian organizations in western states hold annual fundraising events ranging from outdoor activity field days to black-tie dinners.
Maine has the legislative authority to bill individuals who were rescued in limited circumstances, particularly when the person who was rescued deliberately misled search investigators. But this prerogative is rarely invoked.
“We want people to call,” Lt. Adams said, noting that he doesn’t want people to delay their decision to seek help out of concern for the potential cost. “The more time that goes by, the worse it is for them and for us.”
New Hampshire law also allows that state’s fish and game department to recoup costs if the person who was rescued had been negligent; but, as in Maine, the technique is used infrequently.
One earlier concern of Vermont’s Search and Rescue Strategic Plan Committee regarding costs is the issue of insurance coverage for volunteers at search and rescue missions. Legislative Counsel BetsyAnn Wrask informed the committee that state statutes already contain a provision permitting the state workers compensation fund to cover volunteers, as long as they were providing services at the request of a state agency. However, the state would also be taking on the liability for any potential damages to property or people caused by the volunteers. Some other states tie insurance coverage to a requirement of meeting qualification standards set by the entity in charge of search and rescue operations statewide.
John Wood noted that the number of unaffiliated volunteers requiring such insurance is minimal, as local fire departments and rescue squads are already covered by their municipalities, and Citizen Emergency Response Team members who are called out under the aegis of Vermont Emergency Management receive state coverage under a different statutory provision.
“Whenever a local agency calls out any resources they are liable for those resources. In fire service we use mutual aid agreements all the time but we aren’t liable for their insurance, they are covered by their own communities,” Wood said.
The committee requested more detailed presentations, including cost estimates, from both the Vermont State Police and Vermont Fish and Wildlife for its next meeting, to be held Wednesday, Sept. 12, and the statehouse from 9 a.m. to noon.
Freelance reporter Cindy Ellen Hill is at [email protected].