Thursday, March 1, 2012

Montpelier — The Vermont State Police announced on Monday that they’re updating their search and rescue policy to better align with national practices, but the family of a 19-year-old hiker who died last month claim that such measures aren’t good enough, and are taking their case before state legislators.

In a hearing yesterday in front of the House Government Operations Committee, which is charged with matters of public safety, Starksboro resident Kathleen Duclos said she believes the Vermont State Police should be stripped of their responsibility to conduct search and rescue in the backcountry.

 “Given that 45 out of 50 states do not assign primary search and rescue responsibilities to their state police, I believe it will become clear that there is a better way, and I hope that Vermont will follow their lead,” Duclos said in a written statement prepared for lawmakers in Montpelier yesterday.

Duclos is the aunt of 19-year-old Levi Duclos, an experienced hiker who spent six months trekking in Nepal before going out for a day hike in the Green Mountain National Forest on Jan. 9. When Duclos didn’t return to his New Haven home by 8:00 that evening, his family called 911.

What happened next has fueled intense debate and speculation among outdoor enthusiasts, state legislators and others. Because State Police have refused to release details or comment on the case, stating that it’s still under investigation, much of the information has come from the family of Levi Duclos, who was found dead three miles from the trailhead the morning after he was reported missing. 

According to Duclos’ family, police did not initiate a search until daybreak, leaving Duclos stranded overnight in temperatures that dipped into the teens. If the police had immediately called in local fire departments familiar with the terrain or specially trained search and rescue groups, critics claim, Duclos’ life could have been saved. It’s unclear why Duclos was unable to complete the hike on his own. 

“Urgency would indicate you should do something at night,” said Robert Koester, a 30-year search and rescue veteran who has built an international career out of researching search and rescue practices. Based in Virginia, Koester was familiar with the Duclos case, which he said has been making ripples in the outdoor community. 

In other states, including New Hampshire, non-profit rescue groups like the 30-member Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team are automatically notified whenever a hiker or skier is reported missing. In Vermont, though, such notifications are at the discretion of the state police, and there is currently no protocol in place to get the word out to those who stand by ready and willing to help. Local officials are sometimes notified when there’s a 911 call, but many wilderness areas don’t fall under the jurisdiction of local fire or police squads. 

“State police were given the mission of search and rescue in 1946,” said state Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, who is drafting legislation to help revise Vermont’s search and rescue policy. “Since that time the landscape in Vermont has changed, and we have a number of municipal and non-profit organizations equipped and trained to do search and rescue, and I think they have been essentially excluded from the process.”

A two-page protocol provided by the State Police mentions training and preparedness for its own 20-member Search and Rescue Team, but does not include any language for involving local fire departments or search and rescue teams. The new interim policy, to be released soon, will likely change that by implementing a “coordinated and unified response to search and rescue operations in Vermont,” according to a press release.

Scott Carpenter, team leader of the Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team and a certified Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician, said his team receives far more search and rescue calls in New Hampshire than in Vermont, but whether that’s due to a higher rate of incidents in the White Mountains or whether the Vermont State Police simply don’t involve outside groups is unclear. 

Each state has its own way of handling the search and rescue, Koester explained: while best practices have been established, there are no national standards. A few states authorize the State Police for search and rescue, while many others, especially on the East Coast, cede authority to state emergency management agencies, which can deploy local wilderness response groups across the region at the push of a button.

In New Hampshire, the state Fish and Game Department has authority over search and rescue organizations — another common model. 

“Obviously there is some intuitive sense to (that,)” Koester said. “They obviously spend a lot of time out in the woods.”

But though the Duclos case has raised questions about whether State Police should be the first to respond to wilderness emergencies in Vermont, there’s nothing inherently wrong with giving responsibility to police officers, Koester said.  What’s key is that there’s a system in place to get boots on the ground as quickly as possible. 

“Any model can work,” Koester said. “It’s just the way that it’s implemented. What really matters is how well trained people are, how experienced people are and the process and procedures in place to make sure no one falls through the cracks.”

In the Twin States, a number of non-profit search and rescue organizations exist to aid state officials. The Upper Valley Wilderness Response team responds to roughly 25 calls per year, and is ready to go at the drop of a hat, any time, night or day. They were not notified when Levi Duclos was reported missing. 

Nor were any other organizations, including the Mountain and Cold Weather Rescue team, made up of Army ROTC members at Norwich University. In a letter to the legislature, Geoffrey Farrell, the officer in charge of the ROTC team, wrote, “We’ve been around since 1960, and although we have a young, strong, very well trained and sizable contingent of searchers and rescuers, in recent years we have received very few calls for assistance.”

The new policy being adopted by the State Police would require that such groups be notified in future emergencies. But whether the police will continue to be in charge of such operations is yet to be determined: Sen. Illuzzi legislation would cede authority to a different agency, such as the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a backcountry search and rescue committee is being formed to hear testimony like that given by the family of Levi Duclos yesterday. 

 According to Kathleen Duclos, she and three other family members drove to the Emily Proctor Trail in Ripton after calling 911 on Jan. 9.  Two hours later, she said, a police officer arrived but did nothing and eventually left without explanation. At midnight, four hours after the initial call, Duclos said a supervisor, Sgt. Stephen McNamara, arrived on the scene. 

“He had been delayed because he had tried to drive from Ripton, unaware that the road is gated in the winter,” Duclos said. 

While the three other family members, untrained in wilderness response, vainly searched the dark, cold woods, Duclos filled out a missing persons report with the officer at the trailhead.

“Even at that point, when a search was authorized, it wasn’t going to happen until the morning, despite the fact … that there were plenty (of) folks nearby in Ripton and Lincoln who were ready, able and willing to be there, and could have been there hours earlier,” Duclos said. At the time, she and her family were unaware such resources existed.

Hartford Fire Chief Steven Locke, who is trained in specialized rescue, rejects criticism that the State Police aren’t qualified to manage search and rescue. He said that the case of Levi Duclos is unfortunate, but police had no indication that the hiker was trapped or injured. “It was construed as a missing person,” Locke said. 

Rep. Donna Sweaney D-Windsor, who heads the House Government Operations Committee, believes that while state police should still be involved, they shouldn’t necessarily hold sole authority. She said she has made updating state legislation a priority, and hopes to get new policies passed before the end of the current session. 

The timing may be good. Recent snowfalls have spurred more backcountry skiers and hikers into the mountains, some of whom may not be prepared for the conditions they face. 

Todd Johnstone-Wright, an instructor with SOLO Wilderness Medicine and director of wilderness programs at St. Michael’s College said that as technical equipment becomes more accessible and inexpensive, more and more people are venturing into the backcountry without proper training, and the number of rescues has been on the rise.

As Levi Duclos’ uncle, Ray Ault of Proctor said in an interview yesterday, “At the very least, we need to better use our existing resources. Things are happening that need to happen.”

 A Coast Guard helicopter in Sitka, Alaska

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