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Forest Rangers - Search & Rescue Air Boat

Last Updated 10/30/17 @ 1030

Go to 1975     Go to 1980
Inception of the Aerial Detection Program

1970 brought an overhaul of the fire detection system. Previously, it relied on as many as one hundred and two fire towers across the State with the greatest number of these in the Adirondack and Catskill Mountains. More than twenty aerial detection flights would replace nearly seventy fire observation stations.

Some of these towers were within the bounds of newly designated "wilderness areas" in the Adirondacks and were deemed non-conforming structures that would be removed during the early 1970's. Others were sold to the owners of the land on which they stood while some were sold to any interested bidders and removed.

About forty of the closed towers were classified as "stand by" and would receive a minimal amount of maintenance so they could be re-opened in the event of serious fire danger. Thirty-five remained operational for another twenty years with the last being fazed out in 1990. Pictured above is District Forest Ranger James Lord discussing an aerial detection route with a prospective contractor.





A Murray Family Photo
Aerial detection got off to a rough start with a fatal accident on the first detection flight of the 1970 fall fire season in western New York. Just after take-off, the plane piloted by Jack Marvin crashed in the village of Hammondsport seriously injuring himself and District Ranger Bob Roche. The only immediate fatality was Forest Ranger Raymond Murray
of Addison, New York. Several days later, pilot Marvin succumbed to his injuries.

Pictured to the right is the memorial in Ranger Ray Murray's honor at the Steuben Co. Civil Defense Training Center in Bath, NY.




Creation of Department of Environmental Conservation
A DEC Image1970 also brought about the creation of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). This occurred on July 1, 1970 and it combined into one state agency with all programs designed to protect and enhance the environment.

While the former Forest Districts still remained, they were incorporated into the larger regional scheme. Previously, the Division of Lands and Forests was more or less a line organization from the Division Office in Albany to the Forest District Offices and the field personnel.

Regionalization added another level of management between the ranger in the field and the Central office. Authority and direction would now come from the Commissioners Office to the nine Regional Directors, then to the former Forest District Offices (renamed Regional Sub-office). This management style was deemed necessary as the new agency configured itself to include units from the departments of Health, Agriculture and Markets and various state commissions.

Such traditional units as the Divisions of Lands and Forests and the Division of Fish and Wildlife saw their central control usurped by this new organizational concept and found themselves assuming a somewhat more advisory and program development role. Because of strong leadership, the Division Offices still maintained a certain amount of control over the day to day business of their individual units, but the ultimate authority and direction lay with the Commissioner's Office and the Regional Directors.

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This new super agency took away many of the ranger's traditional responsibilities described earlier, transferring many of them to the newly formed Operations Unit.

Without many of these former responsibilities the rangers were in a quandary as to what their future would hold. Their traditional role in forest fire control would continue and well as their oversight of State-owned lands within their districts, but to what degree?

The rangers search and rescue work would continue but was often in a disjointed fashion. Lost or missing people on large tracts of State land usually fell under the rangers self-assumed responsibility and generally worked out fairly well, however searches elsewhere were pretty much up for grabs, sometimes conducted by friends and neighbors of the missing, a local fire department or rescue squad, or a local, county or state-wide police agency. While the rangers were best suited, experienced and trained for this type of work, their abilities were not widely recognized. That would soon change with the search in Newcomb for 8 year old Douglas Legg.

Rangers in a Quandary Over Their Future
That same period saw the divestiture of the Civil Service Employees Association from one unit representing all State employees to five separate and obviously smaller units representing the different working groups. Operational Services, Professional, Scientific and Technical and the Security Services Units were examples of this reorganization along with a category of personnel designated as Management Confidential. The forest rangers were originally slated for inclusion in the Operational Services Unit based partly on a lot of the maintenance types of work of which they'd just been relieved. A strong appeal by the ranger's chapter, based on its movement toward a more active role in law enforcement, landed them in the Security Services Unit along with the Correction Officers, Conservation Officers and others and were then represented by Council 82 AFSCME. While this was the smallest of the bargaining units, it would prove to be the most powerful and the most adept at representing its members.

The relationship between the rangers local and the Department would be an extremely contentious one for several years to come. While the Department and the Division of Lands and Forests were not enthralled with the rangers becoming more involved in enforcement, there was no clear message or plan forthcoming as to what they felt their future should be. Out of total frustration, the rangers local petitioned the Commissioner to be made a part of the newly created Division of Law Enforcement.

This, needless to say, got everyone's attention and somewhere in the early 70's it was decided that the rangers would assume an enforcement role when the need arose in relation to issues involving the fire laws and the laws, codes, rules and regulations regarding State-own lands under the jurisdiction of the DEC.

The Search for Douglas Legg


The search for an eight year old boy at Newcomb in 1971 would serve as a turning point in the ranger's overall involvement and conduct of search and rescue missions across the State.

The search for Douglas Legg, at that point in time, was the largest search effort ever conducted in New York State for a missing person. It involved multiple agencies and hundreds of well meaning volunteers. The droves of volunteers who would show up unannounced became more of a detriment to the operation than an asset. There were just too many and no way of controlling the numbers or providing adequate supervision. More than one thousand people participated in the effort including as many as six hundred on a single day.

From the onset, there were difficulties amongst the various agencies as to who was in overall charge and what assets should be utilized immediately and what should be held in reserve.





Family members were people of substance, owning Santanoni Lake and the surrounding area, who were not pleased with the effort taking place and consequently contacted and summoned the California based Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team paying their transportation costs to Newcomb and return. The team, used to searching in the Sierra Madre Mountains of California found the Adirondacks of New York and its dense and often impenetrable undergrowth a challenge to which they were not accustomed.

After 22 days, the search for Douglas Legg was called off leaving troopers and rangers assigned to follow up on any subsequent leads.

And through all of this, in the true fashion of small town America, every resident of Newcomb and the surrounding area contributed whenever and whatever they could to the search effort.

Creation of the Three Specialized Forest Ranger Search and Rescue Teams
One positive development stemming from the Douglas Legg Search was the designation by the Governor's Office and the Department of the forest rangers as the lead-agency for all wildland search and rescue missions in New York State. This was the beginning of a program that expanded in the future to include, high-angle ice rescues, white water rescues and a number of others.

In October of 1971, prompted and approved by the Governor's Office, the Department of Environmental Conservation announced the creation of three specially trained search and rescue teams, each comprised of ten forest rangers and two alternates. Blue Fox Search and Rescue Team, covering the western Adirondacks was under the direction of District Ranger Robert Bailey; Red Eagle, in the eastern Adirondacks was overseen by Asst. District Ranger Martin Hanna and Grey Hawk, operating in the Catskills, was led by Asst. District Ranger Gerald Hamm.


Rangers were provided training in search planning and organization, establishment of ground controls, utilization of volunteers, inter-agency communication and notifications and first aid and emergency medical skills under the newly formulated Medical Emergency Technician program.

Rangers expanded and refined their ground search techniques that they'd been utilizing for many years. The first would have been a cursory or "extensive" search of the area, checking trails and drainages for the missing person. In the event that such an effort was unsuccessful, this would have been followed by a close order or "intensive" search.

Rangers were provided additional resources to aid them in high-angle rock rescues, helicopter assisted rescues and mountaineer equipment that would allow them to go into remote areas and stay for extended periods of time.

The program would expand further to the training and certification of Search and Rescue Volunteers as well as assisting in the development and organization of volunteer search and rescue teams.

Intensive Search Techniques Utilized at the Time
Ground searches as mentioned, took two basic forms, i.e., "extensive" and "intensive." These were developed years earlier by the rangers and were proven very effective when utilized by trained individuals. Extensive searches required the identification of the out-bounds of the search area followed by individuals checking trails, drainages and other routes a person might logically follow from these outer limits toward the location where the person was last know to be. This was often all that was required to discover the lost or missing person.

The intensive search technique was used when the subject of the search was considered to be no longer mobile or possibly deceased. Again, the out-bounds would be identified (shaded in red)and then the search area would be divided into smaller sections to facilitate searching. The parallel lines shown on the map in green were established by running a compass course and trailing a cotton twine to mark them on the ground. Once initiated a group of no more than 7 to 10 searchers would conduct an intensive or close order search between these base lines indicated by the blue arrows. The method has been referred to as "shoulder to shoulder" or "hand to hand" but both are misleading. More accurately searchers would move through the area at inter-visible distances so as not to by-pass the subject of the search or any evidence the subject may have dropped or intentionally left behind.



High Angle Rescue Techniques


Rangers received extensive training is high angle rescue techniques that were later utilized in every region of the State. Geographical challenges at places such as Chapel Pond in the Adirondack and the Shawangunk Range in the lower Hudson Valley attracted large numbers of technical climbers each year. The same techniques were used in lesser know areas where hikers or climbers found themselves in need of assistance or out and out rescue.


Rangers Take Part in the Search and Rescue After Hurricane Agnes

One of the first assignments for the Blue Fox Search and Rescue Team in June of 1972, was participation in the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in the Corning and Elmira area of New York State.

The rangers were a group of 20 men who joined a larger group of thousands of State Police, county law enforcement, local law enforcement and a myriad of emergency search, rescue and medical personnel who rushed to aid the victims. When the storm finally abated, 128 people had lost their lives, 23 in southern New York. Rangers, whose field of expertise was wildland search and rescue, were thrust into an urban search, rescue and recovery situation.




From the Beginning, Helicopters Were Used in Search and Rescue Efforts
Helicopters are often used in search and rescue missions particularly in the high peaks of the Adirondacks and Catskills. The first to ever be rescued by helicopter was a young bow hunter who was missing for 6 days in the Raquette Lake area. The ship was piloted by "Ace" Howland.























The rescue of a hiker near Blue Mt. Lake who sustained a serious leg injury.

Video courtesy of Keith Bassage





A nighttime extraction of a young woman who had some form of medical issue.

Video courtesy of...




A waterdrop on a remote forest fire.

Video courtesy of...




The wintertime extraction of two hikers marooned on Algonquin Peak.

Video courtesy of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation


Emergency Command Centers


In order to effectively conduct search and rescue missions, mobile command and communications centers were vital. Pictured is the first such equipment, a government surplus trailer converted to such a center by Department communications technicians.










The "Stump Report"


While the Division of Lands and Forests was undergoing a pay study through the Dept of Civil Service's Division of Classification and Compensation and many titles were being updated and upgraded, the study for the rangers lay dormant for a protracted period of time. This pic is in a way misleading as this section has nothing to the theft of timber buy rather, a comprehensive study of the Forest Ranger force and its duties and responsibilities. This resulting document was known as "The Stump Report" for a three person committee chaired by Ross Stump, Management Consultant and including District Ranger Don Decker and Regional Forester Arthur Flick. The report served as a list of recommendations to guide the future of the Ranger Force.

Though the document was submitted to Commissioner Biggane in December of '73, it was not made officially public for more than a year. Many provisions were pretty mundane, simply dealing with basic organizational and management issues. While others, sure to raise the ire of the Divisions of Lands and Forests and Law Enforcement, were probable reasons its roll-out was delayed so long. Two of these called for expanded law enforcement responsibilities and improving on what was deemed rather shaky enforcement status to give the force "peace officer " status. The Ranger Force was moving toward added enforcement responsibilities much to the dismay of the Division of Law Enforcement and without the blessing of the leaders in Lands and Forests.





forest Rangers Move Toward an Increased Role in Law Enforcement


Prior to the issuance of the Stump Report, but at the insistence of the majority of the rangers and Council 82, the Division of Lands and Forests reluctantly agreed to expanded enforcement responsibilities and approved the purchase of 150 Smith & Wesson Model 13, .357 Magnum revolvers and accessories. These weapons had their own back story. Though they were approved, funded and purchased in early 1973, they were never issued until a year later.


Near the end of 1973, as Commissioner Biggane was preparing to leave the Department, he indicated to ranger representatives that before he left he would insure that the ranger enforcement status would be improved upon and the revolvers would be issued.

The revolvers were issued in the spring of 1974 and their enforcement status was somewhat clarified, but because rangers were not full fledged "peace officers" under the Criminal Procedure Law, each had to acquire a pistol permit from the county in which they lived, in order to carry the State issued revolver.

Training and qualification would fall to the Division of Law Enforcement until 1986 when the Ranger Force developed its own cadre of instructors and training curriculums.

Some Rangers Opposed the Move
Not all rangers were enthralled with this move toward law enforcement. Many of the older rangers took a position of silent opposition; while this was not a direction they wished to go they conceded they were in the waning years of their careers and would not openly oppose such a move out of respect for the wishes of the younger members of the force.

This is not intended to suggest that all of the younger members of the force were in agreement with this change in direction. A couple showed their displeasure by resigning their positions, while a few others did openly opposed the move. One ranger, so adamant in his opposition, brought suit against the Department and Commissioner sighting a lack of both authority and training to safely conduct certain assigned tasks.

While this case worked its way through the court system, Council 82, the rangers union, was pursuing "peace officer" status through the legislative process. Bills sponsored by Senator Ron Stafford and Assemblyman Glenn Harris passed both houses over five consecutive years, but was consistently vetoed by the governor.

The enforcement status issue would not be resolved until 1980 when the legislature passed and the governor signed the OMNIBUS peace officer bill. Prior to its passage, most if not all peace officers were allowed to carry firearms. The legislation clarified the status of peace officers granting them authority "pursuant to their specialized duties" and specifically prohibited most from carrying firearms. Forest rangers were granted full peace officer status and were authorized to carry firearms in the performance of their duties.

Prescribed Fire


Fire is not always the enemy but often simply a tool to accomplish certain goals whether related to forest management, wildlife management or fire hazard reduction.

Pictured here is a "prescribed fire" conducted to address the issue of White Pine Cone Borers damaging cone production in one of the Department's seed orchards in Oneida County. In this case the Department created the seed orchard by grafting cuttings from the tops of dominate White Pine trees (Pinus Strobus) on to previously planted root stock thereby bringing the cone bearing branches down to within easy reach.


This orchard, while only a few acres in size, provided the Department's tree nurseries with over one hundred bushel of cones each year. The burn conducted by the rangers put the seed orchard back into production providing 100 bushel of viable cones each year. Prescribed fire is brought into play after certain types of softwood logging operations are completed. An operation such as this will leave tons of highly flammable material behind. To eliminate the fire danger the remaining slash will be eliminated by prescription.


Forest rangers write burn plans for prescribed fires. Burn plans identify, or prescribe, the best conditions under which trees and other plants will burn to safely get the best results. Burn plans consider temperature, humidity, wind, moisture of the vegetation, and conditions for the dispersal of smoke. Rangers compare conditions on the ground to those outlined in burn plans before deciding whether to burn on a given day.

The First Time Rangers Were Called to Respond to Western Fires


In August of '79, forest rangers organized and sent their first 20 person crew to the Cabin Fire in the Lolo National Forest, Montana at the request of the U. S. Forest Service. This was the culmination of several years of effort to develop protocols, secure proper approvals and authority, provide training and qualifications and formulate organizational and call-up procedures.


This arrangement was through a cooperative agreement with the U. S Forest Service and has continued on through to the present day. Every year New York sends crews west to assist with fire suppression efforts.

In current times, these crews are lead by forest rangers and are comprised of rangers, other DEC personnel and volunteer firefighters, all of whom have passed rigorous physical testing and completed certain mandated training.


While the Cabin Fire was small by western standards, approximately 1000 acres, it was in rugged terrain and the altitude differential in the burn area was over 1000 feet.

The map designations of H-1, H-2 and H-3 are helicopter landing sites, or helispots, along with the Base Camp and East Camp sites. H-3 is also the location of a "spike camp," meaning that it was a site where firefighters were flown in, equipped and supplied by helicopter, and who spent several days and nights fighting the fire before returning to Base Camp.

This was a very successful endeavor for the crew from New York, referred to as "New York 1", that it paved the way for a good working relationship, resulting in crews going west every year since 1979.


The Search and Rescue Volunteer Program

Developing a cadre of individuals trained in basic search and rescue techniques was another aspect of their overall mandate. To have available a roster of trained individuals was vital to the conduct of efficient search operations. Training was provided to fire departments, rescue squads, hiking clubs and to interested individuals with no connection to any emergency response organization. When an incident occurred that required more than simply a few rangers, requests went out for trained Search and Rescue Volunteers. This went a long way to prevent the on slot of well-meaning but untrained and unequipped individuals that occurred at the Douglas Legg Search.

An unexpected spin-off of the program was the organization and development of volunteer search and rescue teams to support the forest ranger's program. These teams were and are invaluable. One of the first and still active and very much involved is the Oswego County Pioneers Land Search and Rescue Team