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Who should lead Vermont's search and rescue operations?

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Posted on September 17, 2012 |
By Cindy Ellen Hill



MONTPELIER — Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry delivered a well-orchestrated message to the Legislature’s Search and Rescue Strategic Plan Development Committee last week: The Shumlin administration has determined that search and rescue in Vermont will remain under the primary jurisdiction of the Vermont State Police.

The Vermont Legislature had scrutinized state police authority and protocols for backcountry search and rescue this spring after 19-year-old New Haven resident Levi Duclos died of hypothermia on a mountain trail in Ripton in January. State police were notified that Duclos was missing by a 9-1-1 call from a family member at 8 p.m., but did not initiate a ground search or request assistance from local first responders for more than 12 hours. The Legislature adopted interim search and rescue protocols to mandate more timely response, then tasked the committee with evaluating whether search and rescue jurisdiction should be transferred to another entity, such as Fish and Wildlife.

At its second meeting, in August, the committee received from Fish and Wildlife’s lead law enforcement officer, Maj. Dennis Reinhardt, an outline of how search and rescue management might function under the aegis of that agency. The committee then requested more detailed side-by-side proposals from both the VSP and Fish and Wildlife to be delivered  at last Wednesday’s meeting at the Statehouse. Instead, they received Berry’s directive to invest state police with primary search and rescue authority.

“I find it confusing that the study committee was charged with coming up with a plan but Gov. Shumlin’s administration has made the decision for them that the VSP will remain in charge of search and rescue, and the committee has accepted that,” said Kathy Duclos, an aunt of Levi Duclos who has carefully monitored the work of the Legislature and the committee on this issue. “It is unfortunate that the committee did not get the chance to look at side by side proposals from VSP and Fish and Wildlife.”

The committee’s work is far from over as they need to iron out critical logistical details, including whether to remove authority for search and rescue from municipal police to give state police exclusive jurisdiction, and how much additional funding to include in the VSP budget. Kathy Duclos expressed reservations as to whether this path would result in improved search and rescue responses.

“The legislation will need to be crafted very carefully to guard against the Vermont State Police backsliding into their old ways and to ensure true collaboration into the future, if it is even possible,” she said. “The culture of the VSP has been the biggest problem and I don’t see how that can be fixed through legislation.”

ADMINISTRATIVE POSITION

In recent weeks, conversations were held between Public Safety Deputy Commissioner John Wood, Berry and the governor’s office, as a result of which “the administration’s position is that at this time it makes a lot of sense to have the state police maintain jurisdiction over search and rescue,” Berry told the committee.

While commending the committee for helping the administration to “think outside the box” and encouraging cross-agency dialogue, Berry’s pointed communiqué left no room for interpretation. “This committee certainly wants to look at different models but this is where we are headed with that. The state police would definitely maintain jurisdiction,” he said. “I want to make it clear where we are trying to head from the administration’s perspective.”

The Fish and Wildlife commissioner did envision greater collaboration between his department’s wardens and the state police on backcountry searches, including combined training efforts, shared command structure and expanded use of the wardens’ backcountry skills and land navigation expertise.

“Our guys are really good at search and rescue. They know every trail, every hilltop, so using us as an integrated asset is a better way to go forward,” Berry said. “If you can capitalize on our expertise, it’s the best of both worlds.”

He conveyed a positive tone toward amending state police search protocols and engaging a full-time civilian search and rescue coordinator, and recommended that those efforts be appropriately funded.

“Any combined efforts will take additional resources,” he said. “In the grand scheme of public safety issues, it’s well worth those costs.”

Wood, of the Department of Public Safety and co-chair of the committee, “wholeheartedly agreed” with Berry’s statement, noting that state police “are open to a relationship with Fish and Game, more so now than prior to this.”

Wood acknowledged that ongoing meetings between VSP Capt. Robert Evans and Fish and Wildlife Maj. Dennis Reinhardt had made substantial advancements in bridging the gap between the two agencies.

Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, expressed cautious optimism — with an emphasis on the caution — over the potential for integrated efforts between state police and Fish and Wildlife, but posited that the cross-agency approach needed to be mandated by state statute and not left to the voluntary cooperation of agency personnel.

“I know the concern is that the buck ought to stop somewhere,” he said, “but in the end, in the field, we’ve got to have one team, and it doesn’t matter which uniform they are using.”

STATE POLICE PROPOSAL

VSP’s Evans presented the committee with an oral report of a plan for search and rescue management under state police jurisdiction. The proposal emphasized statewide state police control over all aspects of search and rescue from public education to volunteer training and after-incident review.

Acknowledging that in the past, team leadership has been stretched thin, Evans recommended designating a northern and southern team leader to replace the single state-wide leader, as well as training the 21 troopers of VSP’s search and rescue team in search management. He also recommended training all 325 state troopers in basic search protocols. State police would train with game wardens throughout the year, and partner with selected volunteer organizations to create four regional trained and equipped resource groups. State police would also develop and maintain a statewide search and rescue resource database, a process that has already begun using software in place through Vermont Emergency Management, another division of the Department of Public Safety.

A key component of the state police proposal was borrowed from a recommendation made by Fish and Wildlife’s Reinhardt at the committee’s August meeting: hiring a full-time civilian statewide search and rescue coordinator. The coordinator would be a VSP employee charged with working in tandem with the agency’s existing public information officer (PIO) to create and disseminate hiking and outdoor safety messages throughout Vermont’s outdoor community, ensuring that state police maintain control over search and rescue information flow and public perceptions.

“Our in-house PIO coordinator has a proven track record of impacting citizen behavior,” Evans said.

The proposal would entail an estimated annual cost of $145,000 for the VSP, according to Evans; $100,000 in personnel costs for the coordinator, $40,000 to train and equip four regional volunteer teams, and $5,000 for additional trooper training. Funding would also be required for Fish and Wildlife participation in collaborative training.

OVERSIGHT AND REVIEW

The state police proposal also recommended formation of an eight-person Search and Rescue Advisory Council, co-chaired by representatives of VSP and Fish and Wildlife, including as members the VSP search and rescue team leaders plus four out-of-agency members. The council would conduct after-incident review of multi-agency search and rescue events.

The proposed council structure, with its emphasis on state agency control, drew fire from some members of the Search and Rescue Strategic Plan Development Committee.

“I’ve been part of your post-incident review and it’s kind of like the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Dave Shaw, assistant chief of the Middlebury Fire Department. “It’s state police reviewing the state police. The way it’s set up is we come to your facility, we sit with you facing us.”

Shaw pointed out that authentic oversight requires all participants to sit equally around a table in a neutral location.

Transparency, accountability and outside oversight are necessary components of any legislative changes, said Rep. Jewett in an after-meeting interview.

“I’m not certain that what’s proposed has those elements yet, but it could have, through the formation of an SAR Council, and through a training component at the police academy,” Jewett said.

Although not objecting in principle to continued state police involvement in statewide search and rescue management, Jewett stated that he would not sign the police proposal as presented absent clearly stated clarifications of volunteer organization participation and public accountability.

To give the committee a sense of after-incident review, Neil van Dyke of Stowe Mountain Rescue presented a summary review of a some of the approximately 30 search and rescue incidents that have occurred in Vermont in 2012. Members of the committee with extensive search experience conducted a phone conference review of selected searches. Van Dyke’s report highlighted continued communication problems between state police and local organizations, as well as between local search and rescue groups and the 9-1-1 operators, called PSAPs.

NOTIFICATION

The committee informally concurred to a recommendation that all local and municipal entities promptly notify state police of backcountry search and rescue incidents, ignoring the Legislature’s interim protocol requiring communication in the other direction, from state police to local first responders. While public criticism of state police handling of the search for Levi Duclos centered on state police failure to notify first responders who could have swiftly conducted a hasty search over familiar terrain, committee discussions focused on the inverse — delay by local responders in calling state police.

“It should be routine, whether you’re lost in the park or lost on Mount Mansfield, that the one agency is notified,” Middlebury’s Shaw said. “It’s important that search and rescue goes through one clearinghouse. It’s going to take time to muster people up, so always make that phone call, and at least the initial thing is started. We need to get the rescuer in the woods as quickly as possible.”

Statutory changes would be required to mandate local agencies call the state police, Deputy Commissioner Wood stated.

“Right now local police, Middlebury, Bristol, Vergennes, have their own jurisdiction and don’t need to notify anyone,” he said. “They may never call the state police or any other asset. Or they may call six hours later.”

Stowe Mountain Rescue’s van Dyke raised the concern of delay if local organizations had to wait for state police before commencing a search.

“Now if they get a lost skier, they call us up directly,” he said. “Now if they have to call state police and explain it there before we call a local resource, the concern I’m hearing is not so much one of jurisdiction as one of delay over what has historically been a pretty quick local response. Our concern is the timeliness of response.”

“It’s got to be a system where the notification that comes in immediately kicks off an appropriate response,” agreed Jocelyn Stohl, a search consultant and retired VSP search and rescue team leader. “If we call out SAR and those people all respond to a local community and then get the call that the person has been found, and stand down, that’s fine, that’s all anyone cares about.”

“If the PSAP is told they have to call state police, it could delay things,” van Dyke persisted. “If the call comes in to 911 and if the authority rests with the state agency, that call gets routed to the state agency.”

Mike Cannon related the example of a call to 9-1-1 last weekend regarding a swamped boater. Notification of Colchester Technical Rescue was delayed 20 minutes because the PSAP directed the call solely to the Coast Guard.

“Do you want to be hanging on to a boat for 20 minutes waiting for us to get there?” he asked.

VSP Capt. Evans suggested that the PSAPs be advised to make a dual call, to state police and to local responders in the event of a search and rescue, but he did not explain the logistics of how that dual call could be incorporated into the automated PSAP notification systems. The committee concurred that only backcountry search and rescue incidents that had been identified as such by local agencies would need to be reported to state police, to minimize an excess of unnecessary notifications.

RELINQUISHING MUNICIPAL AUTHORITY

The issue of notification raised the larger specter of whether municipalities with local police continue to maintain jurisdiction for search and rescue within their own borders, or whether state police jurisdiction would expand to include all search and rescue incidents within municipal boundaries.

“That’s the elephant in the room right now,” said VSP’s Evans. “Are we going to continue with local agencies having that jurisdiction, or is it going to be statewide jurisdictions. Those are some of the tough conversations we still need to have.”

A minority of municipalities across the state have the capability to manage search and rescue, according to Evans.

“I’m not entirely sure how I feel about eliminating local control for search and rescue,” countered Jewett.

Van Dyke proffered that he could see both sides of that question.

“One of my hats is that Stowe has basically been handling our own search and rescue for 30 years, and we work well with state police and if we need them we call them.” On the other hand, “there’s not another state in the country that allows municipal jurisdiction over search and rescue, so this would be whole new territory and I’m not sure it’s the best model. A search that starts in one town ends up in another town.”

The committee discussed the option of following the present Vermont model for hazardous material spills, in which local fire chiefs are required to call the state hazmat hotline, but can opt to request state assistance or continue handling the incident at the local level. In several other states, the agency having jurisdiction for search and rescue engages in coordination and oversight, but does not necessarily engage in on-the-ground search management; incident command for any given search may still be left to municipal agencies or volunteer organizations with appropriately trained search managers.

Ultimately, timely response by skilled search personnel is the measure of search and rescue management success.

“I can’t stress that the longer you wait for an appropriate SAR response, the greater chance you have that they will not survive the event,” Stohl said. “Through the whole process today I was 100 percent of the opinion that none of this would stop a local response.”

Greg Wolfe, an EMT from Essex, suggested that the Vermont Chiefs of Police Association, which was not included in the study committee, be “brought into the loop to smooth some feathers that might otherwise get ruffled.”

“We aren’t changing anything they are going to do,” Wood responded. “They just have to think quicker about calling state police.”

The committee must submit its final recommendation to the Legislature by Dec. 15. Its next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 24 at the Statehouse at 9 a.m.

Editor’s note: Cindy Ellen Hill is a freelance journalist; she can be reached at wordwomanvt@yahoo.com.

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