Senate begins debate on search and rescue bill

MONTPELIER — When Vermont Senate Government Operations Committee chair Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, opened a hearing on H.182, the Search and Rescue Bill, last Wednesday she gave a nod toward Carol Ault and Kathy Duclos, who were seated in the cramped hearing room.

The two women are aunts of Levi Duclos, the 19-year-old New Haven man whose death while hiking in January 2012 launched public demand for a change in search and rescue procedures.

White noted that “this bill has a very emotional basis” and has seen significant prior attention in both the House and Senate.

The issue of search and rescue protocols had not previously been before the Senate Government Operations Committee. Interim protocols passed last spring had instead been heard in the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs.

“Sometimes the proceedings of this place are a little less than transparent,” White said. “But the House has passed it and it came to this committee. This is our first dealing with it.”

Legislative counsel BetsyAnn Wrask walked committee members Claire Ayer, D-Addison, Eldred French, D-Rutland, and White through the bill’s history and logistics.

“This sets up the process for conducting search and rescue operations in the state because right now the statutes contain nothing regarding how search and rescues are to be conducted,” Wrask explained. Vermont’s present missing person statute addresses only events involving missing children and vulnerable adults with disabilities.

“In a search and rescue operation, someone who is missing in the backcountry or waters of the state, the vulnerability comes from the elements of the environment in which they are located. That requires special skills,” Wrask stated.

The bill as passed by the house designates the Vermont Department of Public Safety — state police — as the lead agency for backcountry search and rescue, but requires close coordination with local agencies and volunteer organizations as well as Vermont Fish and Wildlife wardens through a mandated notification protocol.

“Game wardens have extensive experience outside with the elements, and are familiar with backcountry areas,” Wrask explained.

Other key provisions of the bill include creating a council to conduct after-incident reviews of state rescue operations, and establishing a Search and Rescue Coordinator position to maintain a database of assets, raise funds and organize training. The bill would also require basic search and rescue curriculum for every person attending the state police academy.

PROPOSED AMENDMENTS

The committee heard testimony on proposed amendments from two people: Rep. Butch Shaw, R/D-Pittsford, a volunteer firefighter, and Michael Cannon, head of the Colchester Technical Rescue team and a 33-year veteran Colchester police officer.

Shaw, assistant chief of the Pittsford Volunteer Fire Department and a member of the Vermont State Firefighters Association, proposed that the bill mandate the Department of Public Safety to notify local police and fire departments when DPS receives a report of a search and rescue event.

“I see it as protocol. It’s nice to know there’s an operation going on in the town you are in,” Shaw told the committee. “There are over 4,000 firefighters in Vermont. We open the firehouse, provide a base of operations, logistical supplies, food, water, a place to work. It’s appropriate to notify the host town.”

Shaw also requested that the Search and Rescue Council established by the bill include a representative of state firefighters.

Cannon, who had served on the search and rescue summer study committee in 2012, requested designated funding for the Search and Rescue Coordinator. As presently drafted, the legislation would create a non-law-enforcement Search and Rescue Coordinator position with the Department of Public Safety, but directs the agency to find the job slot and funding from within the department’s present budget — a directive that would require trading off another position within the department. No hours or pay grade for the position are specified in the bill.

“I have significant history with search and rescue,” Cannon testified. “To not fund that position will lead us down the road where we’ve already been. I know DPS has taken it on the chin, good and bad, for their past search and rescue practices. If you have a part-time search and rescue leader you will have part-time results.”

Earmarked funding for the Search and Rescue Coordinator position had been omitted from the House bill out of fear that under present budget parameters, any request for new funding would doom the bill to termination in the Appropriations Committee.

Both Shaw and Cannon indicated that they would not want their proposed amendments to delay passage of the bill.

“I do not want to do anything that will mess this bill up. It is important to me, and it needs to move forward,” Shaw said.

“I am not here to try to hold this bill up by any means,” Cannon reiterated. “It may not be exactly perfect, but it’s very important.”

If the Senate passes a version of the bill that differs from that passed by the House, a conference committee will be appointed to resolve the differences before the bill can move on to the governor to be signed into law.

Steven Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, testified that VLCT fully supports H.182 as presented to the senate committee, and would not oppose the minor amendments proposed by Shaw. VLCT had expressed concern regarding a previous version of the bill in the House that would have mandated immediate search and rescue response by municipal agencies, noting that not all municipalities have the resources to effectively conduct a backcountry search and rescue. The bill now under consideration in the Senate allows municipalities to launch an immediate search and rescue operation, but does not require local response if the municipality chooses to defer to the state police to conduct the search. The bill does mandate that all entities who receive a report of a person lost in the backcountry or waters of the state immediately notify the Department of Public Safety.

“Given the facts of the situations that led to the passage of this in the House, it’s important to get it passed and get it out,” Jeffrey said.

The Senate Government Operations Committee will continue its hearings on the bill this week, hearing testimony from the Department of Public Safety, firefighter organizations, and emergency medical services personnel. Sens. Anthony Pollina, D/P-Washington, and Norman McAllister, R-Franklin, also serve on the committee, but were not present for the initial hearing.

Editor’s note: Cindy Hill is a freelance writer who can be reached at wordwomanvt@yahoo.com.


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