On March 29, 2023

Strengths, culture of KSAR disrespectfully dismissed

Dear Editor,

I want to thank Polly Mikula for her editorial on the public safety issue published in last week’s edition of the Mountain Times, it is informative and asks the questions that need to be addressed. As a past select board member (2013–2019) and a relative of two past members of KSAR (three if you include Baloo) I am concerned/dismayed at the developments in KFD’s and KSAR’s (Killington Fire department, and Killington search and rescue) transfer to a municipal department.

As many of you know, the previous KFD and KSAR, were under a separate corporation, and 100% volunteer. In the interest of the town and the building of the new safety building, it was decided to re-organize to allow for improvements in both infrastructure and management. I support the movement of fire and safety to be under the municipal umbrella, and for there to be a full-time chief. I think this will allow our community to have better safety resources and advance/grow in areas that are challenging for a volunteer department, especially in keeping records. 

What bothers me is the level of disrespect shown by the newly hired chief, the town manager, and Jim Haff towards KSAR (and to some degree the KFD) during this process.

I see three issues at play here.

1. Records: including call out logs, maintenance logs and certifications. 

2. Distinction between competency/experience and certification

3. Management style and respect.

Records

This is an area that I can totally agree with our town manager, Chet Hagenbarth. Hagenbarth, in his position of first maintenance operations director and now town manager, has helped our town navigate many issues and updates to services, infrastructure and associated record requirements admirably.

I agree KSAR/KFD could use additional resources to upgrade all manner of record keeping. This is not to say there are no records, there are, plenty. I would venture to say that what lacks is advanced organization and detail in these records. That is affected by many things, but what stands out would be that we have a volunteer department, so man/womanpower is limited AND the recent move from the old fire station to the new during the pandemic. It was my understanding Chief LaHart was hired to help bring things up to a better standard, and that is a goal we can applaud.

Distinction between competence/experience and certification records

This is an area which is greatly in dispute between KSAR (current and past) and Chief LaHart. KSAR has trained for approximately 10+ years in the specifics of wilderness/mountains SAR as well as been vetted by the Vt. State head of SAR. The techniques and equipment greatly differ in most situations from those of urban SAR due to terrain and weather exposure. The equipment is specific to mountain search and rescue, the ready packs are designed to have supplies to do basic first aid, and survival in exposed weather for a minimum of 24 hours, as well as being light enough to move safely and timely through difficult terrain. The same with the other equipment, it is considerably different than fire department standards, because the condition of use is so different.

Currently there are several organizations that have come into existence to aid in training, equipping, evaluation and deployment of w/m SAR, but as of yet (and I’m sure there will eventually be) a single national standard/organization much like NFPA is for fire. Until that time these groups are sharing “best practices” and improving continually. KSAR has a detailed 28-page Operations and Leadership Manual, that to my understanding, was emailed to Chief LaHart considerably prior to March 10. Among many other things, this document lists the knowledge and performance objectives that must be met by all KSAR members.

Vermont state created the SAR head coordinator position after the unfortunate death of a young man in Middlebury in 2012, revealing the major gap in the state’s safety protocols regarding SAR. To be clear the SAR coordinator, under the umbrella of the State Police, oversees, develops and supports all SAR teams in the state. He is literally the top person in the SAR chain of command for the entire state and is tasked with deploying all SAR calls in the state. He does so according to location, skill level and confidence in the team. The current head for VT SAR in the state is Drew Clymer, and the retired predecessor (founder) is Neil Van Dyke. Both men were  leaders in Stowe Mountain Rescue, which is the premier team in Vermont and possibly New England. Van Dyke is a founder of Stowe Mountain Rescue. As Drew Clymer said at the last select board meeting: he considers KSAR one of his top teams, and the state is now short a qualified SAR team in central Vermont. 

Chief LaHart’s disrespect for the state SAR chain of command is disturbing, he appeared uninterested in anything the head of state SAR had to say at the board meeting. When it came to evaluating KSAR, he chose another fire department with no wilderness SAR experience, rather than look to actual chain of command in SAR.

Management style
and respect

At this point we come a major crux of the problem. Personally, I have serious doubts that Chief LaHart has had any experience leading a volunteer fire/SAR team. I say this because of the manner in which he started. He and his wife expected people in a totally independent, volunteer department to quickly adapt to his style, new rules, commands without question. Not totally unreasonable in theory, but far more appropriate for a paid professional full-time force than one that is part-time volunteers, most of whom have other full-time jobs and many responsibilities. Unfortunately, the LaHarts also failed to consider, even remotely, how well these departments worked and have served our community faithfully and SAFELY over the last 60 years and 10 years, respectively. 

His style appears to dismantle and disregard decades of work, knowledge and dedication without even considering what strengths they have. What a slap in the face to those who have worked so hard and volunteered so much time and effort. If this was the intention and directive of the town manager and the select board to gut and reform wholly from new cloth, then double shame on them!

As Mikula said in her editorial, change in leadership is a challenge. What makes this situation particularly fraught with problems is we are going from a quasi-democratic (members voted on leaders and major decisions) part-time volunteers (I can’t emphasize the words enough) to a system of military rigidity with full-time expectations in a matter of a few months. There is no doubt there are some who would adapt quickly as it may suit their natural inclinations and the previous system did not. That doesn’t mean the previous system was wrong, unsafe or unprofessional.

I realize that a large part of the disconnect here may be in a sense cultural. Chris LaHart comes from a military background with what I consider an extreme rigidity, even for military. Killington is a town of rich mountain history and was developed by strong, independent and, on occasion, headstrong citizens. We have thrived because of a strong sense of community. We rarely worry about formality in names, etc. but generally have great respect for people’s accomplishments and leadership. In times of crisis, such as Irene, we move to put our egos in check and work to help our neighbors, to get the job done. Our culture is based in familiarity, camaraderie, independence, and not chain of command rigidity. Have we operated under chain of command? Absolutely, though not to military precision, but rather through basic human respect and the sense of understanding hierarchy. 

With that said, could our safety service use a more defined structure? Yes, but that takes time, understanding, and humility from all, especially those at the top. Especially because the services of KFD and KSAR are filled by volunteers, who give of their time and energy on TOP OF the other commitments in life, work and family. 

Unfortunately, at this juncture, I see Chief LaHart making no effort to understand and adjust to our culture, and a lot of demanding that we conform to his.

Respectfully submitted, 

Patty Job McGrath,
Killington

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