Lawmakers Work To Improve Search And Rescue Response

09/12/12 5:50PM By Steve Zind
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The State Police should continue to lead Vermont's search and rescue efforts, but the system needs to be reorganized. That was the message heard Wednesday by members of a committee looking into improving how search and rescue operations are conducted.

Nineteen-year-old Levi Duclos of New Haven died while hiking in Ripton last January.  While Duclos was reported missing in the evening, no search was organized until the following day. 

Duclos death brought up questions about why a search wasn't organized earlier.  A committee created by the legislature is looking into those questions. 

One of them is whether the job of leading search and rescue should be handed off to Fish and Wildlife.  At a committee meeting Wednesday, Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Pat Berry said the responsibility should stay with the state police.

"The mission of the Fish and Wildlife Department is the conservation of plants, animals and their habitats for the people of Vermont," Berry said.  "Search and rescue is outside of that mission."

But Berry said because Fish and Wildlife personnel know the back country and the terrain so well, they should have a bigger role in assisting in future search and rescue operations.

That idea was echoed in a proposal presented to the committee by the state police for a reorganization of the search and rescue system.

It calls for regional state police search and rescue teams, closer collaboration with game wardens, the creation of volunteer teams and better training for all those involved.  The proposal also envisions a new position - a statewide civilian coordinator.  

The committee is also grappling with other issues. For example, right now, if a local police department is searching for a missing person, it's up to them to decide whether and when to call in state search and rescue officials for additional help.  That can lead to delays. 

The committee is considering the idea of requiring local authorities to alert state search and rescue officials as soon as a call comes in.  Captain Rob Evans of the Vermont State Police acknowledge there are some difficult questions surrounding the issue.

"That's kind of the elephant in the room right now," said Evans.  "Do we continue with organizations and departments being able to have that jurisdictional authority or is it going to be a statewide approach?"

Evans says one of the changes already underway is the creation of a state police database that will list all of the people who can be called on to help when a search and rescue is being organized. 

The committee will present its recommendations to the next session of the legislature.

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