Op - Ed, Opinion

A missed opportunity

What is the ideal structure for public safety?

By Polly Mikula

Monday night over 70 people attended the select board meeting (in person and online). The recent riff between Killington Search and Rescue (KSAR) and the newly hired Chief of Killington Fire and Rescue Chris LaHart, spurred the spike in attendance.

Unfortunately, the three-plus hour long meeting was mostly comprised of in-the-weeds he-said/she-said contradictions and recounting the history of KSAR. That’s not to say that some of the assertions weren’t important, just that they took the discussion in a direction that wasn’t ultimately fruitful (in that nothing changed.) It could have been fruitful if, instead, the primary discussion focused on finding the ideal structure for public safety in Killington.

There are many ways public safety departments are organized; a discussion of the pros and cons to find out what’s best for our town and community would have been far more helpful for all.

Currently, there are two separate departments that occupy the Public Safety Building in Killington, police and fire (which includes EMS and KSAR). Each has a chief and works side by side in mutual aid when needed.

In Stowe, by way of example, there are five separate departments within public safety, listed on the town website as: police dept., emergency medical services, fire dept. mountain rescue, and emergency management.

Stowe Mountain Rescue, founded in 1980, is widely regarded as the gold standard for search and rescue squads in New England. It used to be under the Stowe Fire Department, but split (apparently as a result of leadership conflicts similar to Killington’s), and has grown into the optimal department it is today.

On the state level, the jurisdictional authority for all backcountry search and rescues lives in the Dept. of Public Safety (DPS), which works with a dozens of volunteer search and rescue teams across the state, in addition to local first responders, ski patrols, local law enforcement, game wardens and others in a collaborative approach to locate and evacuate lost subjects.

The state DPS Search & Rescue Coordinator Drew Clymer, who is also a member of Stowe Mountain Rescue, attended Monday’s meeting in Killington and provided useful information for the town to consider.

He also refuted some key assumptions that seemed to be tripping points for the town leaders who were worried about undue liability risk due to improper documentation for training and equipment. Clymer explained that there are varying levels of requirements depending on the technicality of the job. In other words, mobilizing a large team of search and rescue folks without specific training or documentation is how most SAR organizations work throughout the state. However, once more technical skills are required — such as medical needs or ropes used for rescue — then properly trained personnel must be employed to protect both the rescue worker and the rescue subject.

Thus, liability risk for “pound and ground” search and rescue is not as significant as Chief LaHart led the select board to believe.

Presumably, LaHart did not know about the variability in rescue requirements and associated liability — and was simply doing his job looking out for the town.

LaHart did get a second opinion on the status of KSAR’s equipment, credentials and training records from officers at the Rutland City Fire Dept. with SAR’s training, who agreed with him that KSAR’s current practices do not meet the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. But is that standard necessary? Most search and rescue operations are not required to meet NFPA, and most volunteer SAR organizations throughout the state do not, according to Clymer.

A one-size-fits-all approach to standards between fire departments and SAR is certainly too simplistic to be effective — and could cause harm if volunteers are sidelined because of it. Until rules catch up with reality, a practical interpretation is the most prudent approach.

LaHart calling KSAR off duty earlier this month until they filed the forms he requested, is also extreme and could have even put public safety at risk. While it seems there was a miscommunication about the lost skier March 6 at Pico (she was found and that was the reason KSAR was called off), they remained “off duty.”

“After the incident was resolved, I did place [the] team out of service with the state and town, enforcing the previous deadline,” LaHart wrote in a letter to Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth on March 16, referencing the deadline he set for their paperwork to be complete (which it still hasn’t been, according to LaHart).

There have been at least six additional lost skiers over that time, Clymer said. The fact that KSAR has not been available to aid in those searches “is a significant void,” he emphasized. Adding that he attended the meeting Monday mostly to find out how long he may be without KSAR as a resource.

A better solution to getting forms filed should certainly be expected.

Transitions, however, are always an adjustment. Moving the fire department (with KSAR) to a town agency and hiring a paid chief are all new. The select board hired LaHart over a field of other candidates and should support him as he navigates the new job. It is reasonable that they did not accept KSAR’s request to be a separate department on Monday, but rather seek to try to make the current structure work first.

No doubt LaHart and the board heard concerns voiced Monday that they ought to take seriously, including many allegations of exclusion, which, if true, could become a much bigger legal liability than those LaHart is concerning himself with. Additionally, examples of over-regulation and inapplicable standards for safety, training, record-keeping and equipment, should also be watched as it could prove costly to taxpayers for little gain.

But KSAR should not walk out. They should try harder to work with the town and LaHart. It’s reasonable for the town to ask for records to be kept up-to-date for trainings, credentials and equipment. And they should take the town up on its offer to pay for certifications needed.

Only three months in, it’s early in the process and restructuring the town’s public safety structure should not be undertaken lightly.

Monday’s discussion perhaps was the kickoff to further exploration of the pros and cons of varying structures for public safety. Let’s regroup, refocus and start aspiring to what our public services could be at their best. Which structure creates optimal capacity to save lives? Which create efficiency? How much more (if any) would it cost taxpayers for KSAR to be a separate town department?

A thoughtful and thorough discussion, without the emotion and accusations of Monday night’s meeting, is the best way forward.

KSAR — and all its members with skills and a willingness to volunteer — are valuable assets to the town, our visitors and the region. In the immediate future, we need them back on duty ASAP. But we also need to use this as an opportunity to pursue a better path. KSAR and the fire department have never been a perfect fit; becoming a separate dept. would have new challenges of course, too, but it’s a path we should be open-minded enough to consider.

It’s a call to true community service for all involved: put aside egos, promises, cliques, chains of command, wounds of past disrespect, etc. and try to work together for the betterment of our community. And if it doesn’t work over time, then put it to the townspeople and let the taxpayers vote on how they want to be best served.

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