MIDDLEBURY — Vermont State Police have primary responsibility for finding lost hikers and other missing people in all areas of the state that are not covered by municipal police departments.
But Vermont’s reliance on state police for backcountry search and rescue is somewhat unusual: Only five states name their state police, who are usually assigned to highway patrol or specialized crime scene investigation, to the job of finding missing hunters, hikers and climbers, according to Howard Paul, public information officer and member of the board of directors of the National Association for Search and Rescue. County sheriffs are the most common lead agencies for search and rescue in Western states, while Eastern states often turn to park rangers and fish and game wardens.
Regardless of who is officially the lead public agency, search and rescue is primarily a volunteer function throughout the country. “The vast majority of states have agreements with nonprofits,” Paul says. “In Western states it’s probably 100 percent, and in New Mexico and Alaska even though the state police are officially in charge there, they rely heavily on nonprofits to do the legwork of search and rescue.”
In Vermont, only four civilian organizations are approved by the Department of Public Safety to aid in search and rescue, and in many instances they are not called in.
In neighboring New Hampshire and Maine, which have similar terrain and experience tourist and outdoor recreationalist use similar to that in Vermont, state fish and game agencies are in charge of finding lost outdoorspeople. In New York, state Department of Environmental Conservation rangers aid local fire departments and municipal law enforcement agencies in finding anyone lost in the wildlands. They do so with the passionate and invaluable assistance of a host of skilled nonprofit entities.
Maine state statutes place responsibility for the “safe and timely recovery” of anyone “on a hunting, fishing or other trip that has become lost, stranded or drowned” in the “woodlands or inland waters of the State” on the Maine Warden Service, a division of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The wardens have an agreement with park personnel in popular vacation destination Baxter State Park to handle the vast majority of the hundreds of late or injured hiker incidents there, calling in the wardens only when a more extensive search or technical rescue is required.
The Maine Warden Service has 125 sworn officers and responds to well over 500 calls for search and rescue service a year. Those calls “can run from people who are found before we finish lacing our boots to people who are never found. Our top categories are watercraft, followed by hikers, lost children, snowmobilers and hunters. As soon as we get the call we send one or two game wardens to the scene to look around and ask questions,” says Maine Search and Rescue Commander Kevin Adams. “From there, we do whatever we need to do.”
The first response is usually a “hasty search” — a quick reconnoiter of the terrain by two-person teams which can often recover a slow or turned-around hiker or boater, and scopes out any issues for which a larger team may need to be equipped, like ice, rockslides or flooding. From the first step, the Maine Warden Service relies on the Maine Association for Search and Rescue. This umbrella group includes about 15 member organizations, each specializing in different functions such as K9, hasty or ground searches, or high-angle recovery. Each of these entities must meet standards set by the warden service that are based on National Association for Search and Rescue certification requirements.
“They need to be trained in map and compass, in GPS, in basic crime scene procedures,” Adams explains. In Maine, those civilian organizations are paid for their time while on a rescue call at rates set annually by the state Legislature. They are also covered by state insurance when working at the behest of the Maine Warden Service.
The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is responsible for all search and rescue in woodlands and waterways, while fire departments and emergency medical personnel fulfill the function of looking for missing persons in towns and cities. There’s no confusion as to who has jurisdiction, according to Col. Martin Garabedian, chief law enforcement officer of New Hampshire Fish and Game. “Everyone knows who to call. There are six districts, each headed by a lieutenant or sergeant. Dispatch provides the information and the lieutenant will immediately start making decisions as to what to do.”
Those response steps include calling on an ongoing relationship with an array of citizen organizations. “We rely heavily on volunteer groups in New Hampshire,” Garabedian said. “We don’t have formal MOUs (memorandums of understanding) with these organizations, and they have their own standards for certification. We have been involved with these groups for 27 years or more.”
New Hampshire Fish and Game meets monthly at the headquarters of the Appalachian Mountain Club with a working group of representatives of these organizations. “We go over what’s pending, what issues are going on in the field, and we review searches that have been done recently and discuss how to improve,” Garabedian says. The nonprofit New Hampshire Outdoor Council serves as coordinator and funding organization for the volunteer groups, raising money and applying for grants for training, radios and other equipment.
New Hampshire Fish and Game has the authority to bill people who are rescued for the costs of that rescue if the person recovered was negligent in regards to their outing — like not being properly equipped or prepared for the conditions reasonably to be expected in that environment and time of year. The nonprofit organizations that assist with search and rescue are covered by New Hampshire state insurance, but unlike Maine, they are not paid by the state for their time. When the state does not bill the person rescued, the nonprofit organizations often ask for a donation to help cover their costs.
“The predominant funding for search and rescue is a one-dollar fee on boat, snowmobile and ATV registrations. That generates $180,000 a year. Now our rescues are increasing and we are spending more money than that, so the general fish and game fund generated by hunting and fishing license fees is being used to offset the additional expenditures,” Garabedian says.
The New Hampshire Fish and Game wardens average 180 search and rescues a year. While response times in New Hampshire vary because of travel time from the various wardens’ offices, the longstanding working relationship with nonprofit organizations ensures that someone is on the ground at the search scene within a short period of time. “Most of our delay time is travel time,” Garabedian says. “Many times a supervisor will get there with the volunteers before the wardens arrive. The numbers are increasing, and it’s always at night or in bad weather, and we really feel for them stuck out there. So we get out as quickly as possible.”
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation rangers engage in more than 240 search and rescue operations in New York’s millions of acres of wildlands, including the Adirondack Park, each year. The roughly 135 rangers do so in close working relationship with municipal agencies and civilian organizations.
“New York is a home-rule state, so at the local level, local volunteer fire departments, local police and sheriffs can organize a search if they get the call. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation rangers also do rescues for anyone who is hurt or lost in the wildlands. We have worked carefully with the local agencies across the state, and when someone is missing like a hiker or hunter, they call us,” says Capt. Patrick Kilpeck of the DEC Rangers. “We work with the local agencies, we go into the woods and have equipment like the GPS system, ropes for technical recovery, we can set up the command post and help coordinate the other resources. But generally the call comes right to us.”
In addition to the local fire and police agencies, the New York State Federation of Search and Rescue teams plays a key role in backcountry rescue. “They have 24 or 25 nonprofit organizations that work together and train together. Any time that it looks like a search is going to go into the next day or the next work shift, we call these groups,” Kilpeck says. “These groups are phenomenal. They are outfitted and ready to go, they show up with gear for spending days in the woods, they are willing to travel long distances on short notice. The local volunteer fire departments and local law enforcement agencies are also great, they help with providing dogs, helicopters, local knowledge of the area. All the groups are very comfortable calling us, we have a good working relationship.”
Starting in 1988, the DEC rangers have trained more than 10,000 volunteers in an eight-hour basic wildlands search skill course. They also provide a more advanced crew leader course that includes skills like safety in the woods and how to block out a gridded search.
The DEC rangers are comfortable that civilian search and rescue personnel are not a threat to the integrity of a potential crime scene. “If we ever even suspect a crime is involved, we contact the local police or sheriffs,” Kilpeck says. “Depending on the nature of the call, sometimes we either send out only armed law enforcement officers, or the volunteer groups will each have a law enforcement officer with them. And if they find something and it looks like a crime, then we pull all nonessential personnel out of the woods and only the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction goes in. But when we’re dealing with hikers and hunters who don’t come home on time, that’s just not the case.”
The DEC rangers take pride in their prompt response times. “When we get notified from 9-1-1 dispatch, if the ranger is in his car then he’s on his way to the search scene, and if he’s home then he gets dressed and is out the door. We take immediate action always. We want a couple of rangers at the scene right away, and I mean immediately,” Kilpeck says. “Sometimes there’s a delay in when we get the call if it went to a local agency first but as soon as we get called, we take some action immediately. We send a ranger to see if the person’s car is at the trailhead, to check out the conditions in the area. If there’s nasty weather or if the person is injured, then time is of the essence.”
Cell phones play a helpful role in search and rescue in New York. The DEC rangers have found they can usually reach a lost person by phone, and gain critical information about their location or any injuries. “If we can’t reach them, we can still get their coordinates from the phone carrier,” Kilpeck says. “If we can’t reach them by phone, then we don’t know if they are hurt or what the problem is and we treat it as a rescue. If it turns out they are all right, well, then, that’s fine. It’s practice.”
The rangers’ prompt response, frequent training and practice helps avoid many tragedies. “Sometimes you do lose people,” Kilpeck says, “and it really takes its toll on all of us. But we do everything we can to avoid that.”
Author Cindy Ellen Hill is a law and policy writer and an attorney in Middlebury. This piece first appeared in VTDigger.org and is published here with permission of the author and VTDigger.org.