Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rescue Prompts Hiker Fine *and* NH Officer Suspension

So now we have a double first of sorts for the March 26-27 hiker rescue of 2011:

  1. First, as previously summarized here, the rescuers disputed the fine for the lost/disoriented hiker.
  2. Second, a NH Fish & Game lieutenant has been suspended for five days without pay for . . . well, exactly why depends on whose perspective you adopt, so here's the full article --

August 11. 2012 11:55PM

Skipped rescue call nets fine

CONCORD — A state Fish and Game lieutenant was suspended for five days without pay this summer for not taking part in a search for a hiker lost on Mount Jackson last year.

Douglas Gralenski said last week his actions had no effect on the search and his suspension was, in reality, payback for a difference of opinion he had with his superiors over deer hunting restrictions. The hiker, Julie Horgan, 62, of Milford, Mass., was found and returned safely after a night on the mountain.

Fish and Game Department Col. Martin Garabedian said Friday he would not comment on any personnel matters and would not say whether other department personnel have been suspended for similar reasons.

Horgan, who was billed $6,971 by the Fish and Game to offset the agency’s expenses for the rescue effort, could not be reached for comment.

Gralenski’s appeal of the suspension was denied by the state Personnel Appeals Board in a decision handed down June 28. He served the suspension but said he is considering further legal action. 

According to court documents filed during the appeal, Gralenski was still on duty about 4 p.m. March 26, 2011, when he was notified by New Hampshire State Police Troop F that a hiker had gotten lost near the summit on the Jackson Trail in Crawford Notch on Mount Jackson. Fish and Game policy holds lieutenants responsible for establishing a command post and organizing rescue efforts in their own districts. Horgan was in District 1, where Gralenski has served as lieutenant for the past eight years. He’s been with the department for 26 years.

Records show Gralenski had planned to attend a church dinner event in Berlin that night. Instead of heading up the search, he called Sgt. Brian Abrams in nearby District 2 and Conservation Officer James Kneeland, asking them to coordinate the department’s response. An off-duty Fish and Game officer, Lt. Todd Bogardus, was called in to help lead the efforts.

With winds of 80 mph, the temperature at zero degrees and wind chills roughly 40 degrees below, rescuers were forced to suspend their search about midnight. Horgan was told to “hunker down” and plan for the search to continue the following morning.

The next day, Gralenski arrived at the Highland Center at 5:40 a.m. to coordinate the effort with Bogardus. With the Mountain Rescue Service volunteers, a National Guard helicopter and crew, and 14 Fish and Game officers joining the effort — which court records point out clocked in 56.5 work hours and 107.5 overtime hours — Horgan was spotted at 9:45 a.m. March 27 by the helicopter crew and led safely down a trail by two of the searchers. Horgan and all team members returned safely to the Highland Center at 12:25 p.m.

Gralenski said his actions that night in no way hampered the rescue effort.

“It didn’t even come in as a call for a rescue initially,” said Gralenski. “The call was for a woman who was disoriented and had lost the trail. Mount Jackson is located near District 2, so they were contacted. Realizing that there was a potential for a rescue effort, I activated the response team. Nothing I did that night affected the rescue efforts.”

Gralenski believes his public stance in early 2011 against a proposed three-point antler restriction for hunting white tailed deer in his district put him in the cross hairs of his superiors at the agency and was the real reason behind his suspension.

“I believe this had nothing to do with actions and response regarding the search and rescue,” said Gralenski. “I decided to take a stance against the restriction, which I felt would adversely affect hunters in my district, and knew I would risk the ire of the department in doing so. I think that’s what was behind the suspension, not my actions regarding the search, which did not adversely affect the mission in any way.”

Rick Wilcox, president of the North Conway-based Mountain Rescue Service — whose agency had 20 volunteers involved in this search — agreed with Gralenski’s assessment. 

“I don’t have a problem with what Doug did,” said Wilcox. “In a rescue like that, Lt. Borgardus, who heads up the Advanced Rescue Team, would have been called in anyway.”

Gralenski’s efforts in opposing the deer hunting regulation included writing and distributing internal agency correspondence and assisting in creating and distributing newsletters, fact sheets and a petition. 

Gralenski conceded that when he addressed a meeting of the Chiefs of Police in Berlin, he was in uniform, which was a “technical violation’’ of orders given him by Col. Garabedian.

At the appeal hearing, Gralenski testified that Fish and Game officers need “some semblance of normal life,” saying that after he contacted other officers to manage the rescue effort, he went to the Harvest Fellowship Dinner and remained there until the guest speaker’s presentation was complete. The pastor at the church where the dinner was being held the night of the rescue effort, David Cantor, also chaired the legislative committee of the Androscoggin Fish and Game Club.

In its decision, the Personnel Board wrote, “The Board understands that every employee needs what the Appellant described as ‘some semblance of a normal life.’ Presumably that was what Lt. Bogardus was doing on his scheduled day off when he was called in to manage a rescue that was actually the Appellant’s responsibility.”

The cost of searching for hikers who get lost in New Hampshire reaches more than $300,000 a year. As previously reported by the New Hampshire Union Leader, Maj. Kevin Jordan of the state Department of Fish and Game stated his agency was called out 799 times between 2007 and 2011 to look for people either lost or stranded. Of those searches, 443 were for climbers and hikers, many of whom were deemed ill-prepared or not properly equipped for their outdoor adventure.

As for Horgan, she had enough equipment for a day hike in the conditions she set out in, according to Wilcox. She was not expecting to be in the elements overnight, so she did not have a lot of overnight gear, but she was experienced enough to build her own shelter out of materials in the woods.

Wilcox said he believed Horgan was an experienced hiker who found herself in a bad situation, off the trail and then out overnight when bad weather hit. He said he felt she was prepared for what she could have reasonably expected to encounter during a day hike

Gralenski said the possibility of responding to yet another call for an ill-prepared lost hiker did not factor into his decision to call in Sgt. Abrams from District 2.

“That wasn’t part of it at all,” said Gralenski. “Like I said, the call didn’t even come in at first as a request for a rescue. It was someone who had lost the trail.”

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