On May 3, 2023

Killington search and rescue teams split

By Katy Savage

Killington may soon have the service of two search and rescue teams.

Around 12 former members of Killington Search and Rescue (KSAR), who quit or were fired over a dispute with the new fire chief in March have joined Rescue, Inc. out of Brattleboro and expect to be in service to the Killington area again next week. Meanwhile, the town has a new 12-member KSAR group that will start operating in June, according to Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth.

It’s unclear how the two entities will operate together or in parallel. 

“This is all new to me,” said Drew Clymer, the search and rescue coordinator for the state Department of Public Safety. He said Rescue, Inc. is one of his trusted go-to resources, but would work with any team that was accredited and vetted. 

“We all work together to achieve a common goal — to find someone lost in the backcountry. Period,” said Clymer, while calling the Killington leaders passionate and acknowledging that the local dispute is politically charged. 

Killington has been without a local search and rescue team since new Killington Fire Chief Chris LaHart abruptly deactivated KSAR in March, citing that KSAR members weren’t properly trained and lacked proper equipment. Seventeen current and former members of KSAR signed a letter shortly thereafter, saying they had no confidence in the chief and outlining a toxic work environment. The issue culminated in an explosive Select Board meeting in which the town sided with the chief denying KSARs separation from his leadership.

“This is just people who don’t want to follow any rules,” Hagenbarth said of the former KSAR group.

LaHart, who started his role in January, is the town’s first paid fire chief. In addition to overseeing the volunteer fire department, he was hired to oversee KSAR and EMS, but disputes started early with KSAR, a volunteer organization that responds to about 15-20 calls a year to find lost skiers and injured hikers and rock climbers in the area. Former KSAR members claimed the chief was difficult to work under and made women particularly feel uncomfortable and/or left out, while LaHart claimed KSAR members wouldn’t cooperate with simple rules and paperwork.

KSAR’s deactivation came as a shock to many. 

“I’ve never seen a team deactivated like that,” said Clymer.

The organization’s departure put a strain on local resources. A handful of rescues in Killington were taken care of by ski patrol, which put in “effort out of the operating requirement,” Clymer said. 

Dave Coppock, one of the former leaders of KSAR, said Rescue Inc. reached out to him after learning about the problems in Killington. 

Rescue, Inc., which formed 1966, was among the first EMS agencies in the nation to offer paramedic care and now services 13 towns in southern Vermont and two in southern New Hampshire.

“We would still be providing the service we did before,” said Coppock. “The difference is this time the town of Killington would have to pay nothing for our gear and training.”

Rescue, Inc. allows technical teams to decide which areas of rescue they want to be involved in. Some team members could be trained to do swift water rescue, for example — a service that hasn’t been offered locally.

“We don’t have a consensus yet among team members on how much we want to do,” Coppock said. “Rescue, Inc. will train us to the proper standard to do what we want.” 

They will also operate under Rescue, Inc.’s insurance. 

“Basically it’s not going to cost the town anything,” said Murray McGrath, formerly a long-time member of KSAR.

Hagenbarth said the town’s new KSAR team under Chief LaHart will provide the same services as before but won’t have advanced EMTs.

“We’re not required to have advanced EMS,” Hagenbarth said. 

The dispute comes at a time when the town has been expanding its investment in public safety. Killington’s new 14,000-square-foot public safety building opened in March 2020 after voters approved a $4.78 million bond. It was intended to be large enough to house the fire department, search and rescue team and the Killington Police Department. Both the fire and police departments have added paid personnel to their ranks. 

Former KSAR members now part of Rescue, Inc. will not use the Public Safety Building going forward. 

“We don’t need a building,” Coppock said. “We do our own training. Sometimes it’s onsight in the woods somewhere or on a cliff.  All of our call outs are outdoors.” 

The former KSAR team is also trying to get their equipment back from the town. They sent an April 6 request via email to the town manager asking for about $1,000 worth of equipment back, including a rope climbing ropes, helmets, t-shirts and a toboggan, claiming it was paid for by fundraising and grants.   

“We’ve not gotten it back yet,” Coppock said by phone. “They’ve been presented with receipts we feel justify getting certain pieces back.”

Hagenbarth said the town was still reviewing the items and receipts as of May 2.  

Operating under Rescue, Inc. will give former KSAR members what they have long desired — “more autonomy,” said McGrath. 

Clymer emphasized the need for the entities to put differences aside for public safety.

“I think there’s some healing that needs to take place there and recognition we’re all working for a clearly defined goal,” Clymer said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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