A statewide search and rescue protocol inspired by an Addison County tragedy has passed the Vermont House and Senate and been sent to the Governor’s office to be signed into law.
The effort to restructure the state’s search and rescue practices was launched by Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, after the hypothermia death of Levi Duclos, a 19-year-old New Haven resident. Duclos died on a Ripton hiking trail after Vermont 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 criticism 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.
The final bill leaves statewide jurisdiction for backcountry search and rescues with the Vermont State Police—an approach which was opposed by the Duclos family and many local first responders. The law now mandates a swift response to missing hikers, skiers and boaters, including notification to local law enforcement, first responder and volunteer search and rescue organizations, and fire departments, and instructs the Vermont State Police to share command structure and coordinate its efforts with these groups.
The law also establishes a new position of Statewide Search and Rescue Coordinator, to work within the State Police public information office to share information and training opportunities with search and rescue personnel across the state, tap into potential resources, and engage in public outreach over backwoods safety. The Legislature declined to fund this position, leaving the Department of Public Safety to find funds from within their existing budget.
The House Operations Committee had included an oversight Search and Rescue Council in their original bill. An independent council to engage in after-incident review is a critical component of developing successful search and rescue practices, according to Jocelyn Stohl, retired former leader of the Vermont State Police Search and Rescue Team and now a search and rescue instructor and consultant.
“In the past, at end of any ground SAR event we’d do a debriefing on scene, then hold a critique where the leadership of the participating teams met with the AHJ (agency having jurisdiction) and reviewed case from beginning to end. It was a well-managed process, with everyone able to put forth what they observed,” Stohl stated in an earlier interview.
The legislation as passed, however, puts the oversight council under the aegis of the state police, and in a last-minute amendment, the Senate Appropriations Committee removed state legislator participation from the council and mandated that the council sunset in 2017.
The last-minute legislative change required additional approval from the House Government Operations committee, which bowed to the Senate amendment in order to avoid having the bill lapse before the end of the legislative session.
“The two-year sunset was recommended by the Senate. I am not sure what their thinking was about this,” said Rep. Donna Sweaney (D-Windsor). “The House Goverment Operations Committee agreed at this point because we wanted to see the bill pass and come into law. We can always revisit the issue at the time of the sunset. It also makes us pay attention to what is happening with the council and the legislation we have put in place.”
Jewett also expressed cautious optimism over the limitations on the SAR Council. “I suppose that if the council does its job well, the sunset won't be a big problem. If they don't, then I trust that the general assembly will take this issue up again. Forcing us to check on the status of reform isn't a bad idea,” he said.
Both Sweaney and Jewett expressed satisfaction that the bill had passed the Legislature and been sent on to the governor’s office for signature.
“I am very pleased with the components of the bill that we all worked so hard to put in place. It took a lot of research from the stakeholders' study committee and the Gov. Ops. Committees in the House and Senate to develop this thoughtful legislation,” Sweaney said. “Hopefully we will never again face a tragedy that happened with Levi Duclos. I am very grateful to the Duclos family for their help and dedication in making this law happen.”