Editor s note: This story is a followup to a story published yesterday on VTDigger.org about the Vermont StatePolice's response to a search and rescue call for missinghiker 19-year-old Levi Duclos who was found dead on a Ripton trailin January. Both articles are by Cindy Ellen Hill, a law and policywriter and attorney in Middlebury . Vermont State Police have primary responsibility for finding losthikers and other missing people in all areas of the state which arenot covered by municipal police departments. But Vermont s reliance on state police for backcountry search andrescue is somewhat unusual: Only five states name their statepolice, who are usually assigned to highway patrol or specializedcrime scene investigation, to the job of finding missing hunters,hikers and climbers, according to Howard Paul, public informationofficer and member of the board of directors of the NationalAssociation for Search and Rescue. County sheriffs are the mostcommon lead agencies for search and rescue in Western states, whileEastern states often turn to park rangers and fish and gamewardens. |
Regardless of who is officially the lead public agency, search andrescue is primarily a volunteer function throughout the country. The vast majority of states have agreements with nonprofits, Paul says. In Western states it s probably 100 percent, and inNew Mexico and Alaska even though the state police are officiallyin charge there, they rely heavily on nonprofits to do the legworkof search and rescue. In Vermont, only four civilian organizations are approved by theDepartment of Public Safety to aid in search and rescue, and inmany instances they are not called in. In neighboring New Hampshire and Maine, which have similar terrainand experience tourist and outdoor recreationalist use similar tothat in Vermont, state Fish and Game agencies are in charge offinding lost outdoorspeople.
In New York, state Department ofEnvironmental Conservation rangers aid local fire departments andmunicipal law enforcement agencies in finding anyone lost in thewildlands. They do so with the passionate and invaluable assistanceof a host of skilled nonprofit entities. Maine Maine state statutes place responsibility for the safe and timelyrecovery of anyone on a hunting, fishing or other trip that hasbecome lost, stranded or drowned in the woodlands or inlandwaters of the State on the Maine Warden Service, a division ofthe Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The wardenshave an agreement with park personnel in popular vacationdestination Baxter State Park to handle the vast majority of thehundreds of late or injured hiker incidents there, calling in thewardens only when a more extensive search or technical rescue isrequired.
The first response is usually a "hasty search" aquick reconnoiter of the terrain by two-person teams which canoften recover a slow or turned-around hiker or boater. The Maine Warden Service has 125 sworn officers and responds towell over 500 calls for search and rescue service a year. Thosecalls can run from people who are found before we finish lacingour boots to people who are never found. Our top categories arewatercraft, followed by hikers, lost children, snowmobilers andhunters. As soon as we get the call we send one or two game wardensto the scene to look around and ask questions, says Maine Searchand Rescue Commander Kevin Adams.
From there, we do whatever weneed to do. The first response is usually a "hasty search" aquick reconnoiter of the terrain by two-person teams which canoften recover a slow or turned-around hiker or boater, and scopesout any issues for which a larger team may need to be equipped,like ice, rockslides or flooding. From the first step, the MaineWarden Service relies on the Maine Association for Search andRescue. This umbrella group includes about 15 member organizations,each specializing in different functions such as K9, hasty orground searches, or high-angle recovery.
Each of these entitiesmust meet standards set by the warden service that are based onNational Association for Search and Rescue certificationrequirements. They need to be trained in map and compass, in GPS, in basiccrime scene procedures, Adams explains. New Hampshire The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is responsible for allsearch and rescue in woodlands and waterways, while firedepartments and emergency medical personnel fulfill the function oflooking for missing persons in towns and cities. There s noconfusion as to who has jurisdiction, according to Col.
MartinGarabedian, chief law enforcement officer of New Hampshire Fish andGame. Everyone knows who to call. There are six districts, eachheaded by a lieutenant or sergeant. Dispatch provides theinformation and the lieutenant will immediately start makingdecisions as to what to do.
Those response steps include calling on an ongoing relationshipwith an array of citizen organizations. We rely heavily onvolunteer groups in New Hampshire," Garabedian said."We don t have formal MOUs [memorandums of understanding]with these organizations, and they have their own standards forcertification. We have been involved with these groups for 27 yearsor more. New Hampshire Fish and Game meets monthly at the headquarters ofthe Appalachian Mountain Club with a working group ofrepresentatives of these organizations.
We go over what spending, what issues are going on in the field, and we reviewsearches that have been done recently and discuss how to improve, Garabedian says. The nonprofit New Hampshire Outdoor Council servesas coordinator and funding organization for the volunteer groups,raising money and applying for grants for training, radios andother equipment. New Hampshire Fish and Game has the authority to bill people whoare rescued for the costs of that rescue if the person recoveredwas negligent in regards to their outing like not being properlyequipped or prepared for the conditions reasonably to be expectedin that environment and time of year. The nonprofit organizationsthat assist with search and rescue are covered by New Hampshirestate insurance, but unlike Maine, they are not paid by the statefor their time.
When the state does not bill the person rescued,the nonprofit organizations often ask for a donation to help covertheir costs. The predominant funding for search and rescue is a one dollar feeon boat, snowmobile and ATV registrations. That generates $180,000a year. Now our rescues are increasing and we are spending moremoney than that, so the general fish and game fund generated byhunting and fishing license fees is being used to offset theadditional expenditures, Garabedian says.
The New Hampshire Fish and Game wardens average 180 search andrescues a year. While response times in New Hampshire vary becauseof travel time from the various wardens offices, the longstandingworking relationship with nonprofit organizations ensures thatsomeone is on the ground at the search scene within a short periodof time. Most our delay time is travel time, Garabedian says. Many times a supervisor will get there with the volunteers beforethe wardens arrive. The numbers are increasing, and it s always atnight or in bad weather, and we really feel for them stuck outthere.
So we get out as quickly as possible. New York New York State Department of Environmental Conservation rangersengage in more than 240 search and rescue operations in New York smillions of acres of wildlands, including the Adirondack Park, eachyear. The roughly 135 rangers do so in close working relationshipwith municipal agencies and civilian organizations. New York is a home-rule state, so at the local level, localvolunteer fire departments, local police and sheriffs can organizea search if they get the call.
The New York State Department ofEnvironmental Conservation rangers also does rescues for anyone whois hurt or lost in the wildlands. We have worked carefully with thelocal agencies across the state, and when someone is missing like ahiker or hunter, they call us, says Capt. Patrick Kilpeck of theDEC Rangers. We work with the local agencies, we go into thewoods and have equipment like the GPS system, ropes for technicalrecovery, we can set up the command post and help coordinate theother resources. But generally the call comes right to us.
In addition to the local fire and police agencies, the New YorkState Federation of Search and Rescue teams plays a key role inbackcountry rescue. They have 24 or 25 nonprofit organizationsthat work together and train together. Any time that it looks likea search is going to go into the next day or the next work shift,we call these groups, Kilpeck says. These groups arephenomenal.
They are outfitted and ready to go, they show up withgear for spending days in the woods, they are willing to travellong distances on short notice. The local volunteer firedepartments and local law enforcement agencies are also great, theyhelp with providing dogs, helicopters, local knowledge of the area.All the groups are very comfortable calling us, we have a goodworking relationship. Starting in 1988, the DEC rangers have trained more than 10,000volunteers in an eight-hour basic wildlands search skill course.They also provide a more advanced crew leader course that includesskills like safety in the woods and how to block out a griddedsearch. The DEC rangers are comfortable that civilian search and rescuepersonnel are not a threat to the integrity of a potential crimescene. If we ever even suspect a crime is involved, we contactthe local police or sheriffs, Kilpeck says.
Depending on thenature of the call, sometimes we either send out only armed lawenforcement officers, or the volunteer groups will each have a lawenforcement officer with them. And if they find something and itlooks like a crime, then we pull all non-essential personnel out ofthe woods and only the law enforcement agency that has jurisdictiongoes in. But when we re dealing with hikers and hunters who don tcome home on time, that s just not the case. The DEC rangers take pride in their prompt response times. Whenwe get notified from 9-1-1 dispatch, if the ranger is in his carthen he s on his way to the search scene, and if he s home thenhe gets dressed and is out the door.
We take immediate actionalways. We want a couple of rangers at the scene right away, and Imean immediately, Kilpeck says. Sometimes there s a delay inwhen we get the call if it went to a local agency first but as soonas we get called, we take some action immediately. We send a rangerto see if the person s car is at the trailhead, to check out theconditions in the area. If there s nasty weather or if the personis injured, then time is of the essence.
Cell phones play a helpful role in search and rescue in New York.The DEC rangers have found they can usually reach a lost person byphone, and gain critical information about their location or anyinjuries. If we can t reach them, we can still get theircoordinates from the phone carrier, Kilpeck says. If we can treach them by phone, then we don t know if they are hurt or whatthe problem is and we treat it as a rescue. If it turns out theyare all right, well, then, that s fine.
It s practice. The ranger s prompt response, frequent training and practice helpsavoid many tragedies. Sometimes you do lose people, Kilpecksays, and it really takes its toll on all of us. But we doeverything we can to avoid that.
Safety first in the backcountry KW Stowe Mountain Rescue, Neil van Dyke, National Mountain RescueAssociation, backcountry rescue By Cindy Ellen Hill Neil van Dykeof Stowe Mountain Rescue and president of the National MountainRescue Association advises, when heading out in the backcountry ofVermont: Let someone know where you re going and when you are expectedback. Skiers venture into the back country and unless they tellsomeone where they are going, it s a lot of territory to juststart guessing and looking around. Have equipment and clothing appropriate to the environment. Beprepared to be self-sufficient in case you need to be outovernight. Bring extra clothes, and watch the weather.
"Wesee people making very bad decisions about going out in brutalweather." Be cautious in relying on your cell phone. There are many areas ofthe state without coverage, and batteries go dead very rapidly fromthe cold or when the phone is constantly searching for service.Just because your phone lasts two days at home without rechargingdoesn t mean it will last two hours in the backcountry. Keep thephone off unless you are using it or run into trouble in order topreserve the battery. Don't travel alone.
You are putting yourself at a muchgreater risk. A sprained ankle can be a life-threatening injury. Weall hike alone at times, so if you can mitigate that risk withother factors like telling someone where you are going and when youexpect to return it can help balance that out. Correction: In the original editor's note we mischaracterizedthe VSP response as delayed.
No one knows yet how Duclos died. Correction: Search and rescue volunteers in Maine are not paid fortheir services as was stated in an earlier version of this story.The story was corrected on Feb. 16.
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