Final vote in Legislature nears on search and rescue bill
MONTPELIER — The Vermont Senate Government Operations Committee last Wednesday unanimously approved the Search and Rescue Bill, H.182, clearing the way for its passage in the full Senate as early as this week. However, the Vermont House must approve amendments made by the Senate committee before the new search and rescue protocol can be signed into law by the governor.
“It’s been a long haul,” said Kathy Duclos wearily in testimony urging the committee to move the bill forward. The Starksboro woman is the aunt of hiker Levi Duclos, whose death last winter on a Ripton hiking trail sparked the legislative action.
“It’s not a perfect bill and there’s plenty about it I don’t like,” she continued, “but I think it’s the best we can do right now and we need the bill.”
Members of the Duclos family and other members of the public had urged the Vermont Legislature to remove search and rescue oversight authority from the Vermont State Police and place it with another entity such as the state Fish and Wildlife wardens. This option was quashed when Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry advised the search and rescue legislative summer committee that the administration had determined state police should remain the agency of primary jurisdiction. A delayed Vermont State Police response to the report that Levi Duclos had not returned from a day hike on a nearby National Forest trail on a cold January night netted widespread public criticism of the agency.
The Senate Government Operations committee amended H.182 before passage to include a mandate that state police notify local fire departments as well as municipal police of any report of a search and rescue occurring within their geographical jurisdiction, and added two firefighter positions to the newly created Search and Rescue Council.
At the suggestion of committee chair Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, the committee mandated that a written search and rescue protocol document be produced and distributed to all public safety agencies and other emergency services organizations within 20 days of the bill’s passage. White’s district includes the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, and she referred to the protocol manuals used by local emergency and law enforcement services that detail procedures in the event of a nuclear disaster.
“When it’s there in writing, everyone knows what to do,” she said.
Committee members rejected an amendment to fund the created position of statewide Search and Rescue Coordinator. A tighter-than-usual budget has been ensuring failure of bills requiring new funding, White explained.
“It won’t make it through appropriations if we do that,” she stated. “I’d like to do it, but I think it wouldn’t make it through.”
No representatives of the Vermont State Police showed up to testify at the Senate committee hearings, a move that committee members viewed as an indication of the agency’s concurrence.
The committee anticipated that the bill will clear the full Senate by this Thursday, April 25, after which it will be returned to the House for approval of the amendments.
“These amendments, except for the written protocol, were suggested from the House, so I’m sure they will just concur and send it to the governor,” Sen. White stated, though any disagreement by House members could require a conference committee and delay the bill’s passage.
Editor’s note: Cindy Hill is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.