New off-road vehicle came in handy in Catskills hiker rescue

It’s not often you get results from a press event as quickly as Olive saw this past week. Or a single first response cements confidence so fully.

This is a story that revolves around a local fire chief’s perceived need related to the once-controversial creation of the Ashokan Rail Trail from Kingston into the deep Catskills, along what had been the Ulster & Delaware Railroad’s line. It involves the ways in which our elected representatives react to funding requests, searching out needed monies wherever they may lie. It’s about the ways modern technology can ease and even save lives.

It’s all about the Olive Fire Department’s new heavy-duty utility terrain vehicle (UTV), for which state senator James Seward secured $35,000 in funding to assist in the purchase. And six hikers lost on Friday Mountain last Saturday night…as well as all that’s being lined up to start construction of the 26.1 mile rail trail in the coming weeks.


“You want a ‘feel good’ story instead of all the crap we’re getting about Alabama, a nice thing,” was how Olive town supervisor Sylvia Rozzelle put it when bringing up the subject this Monday morning.

She talked about Seward’s December 4 visit to the Olive Fire Department, and what she’d just been shown on Facebook by another town hall worker that morning, regarding the rescue efforts that had stretched into the previous morning.

“Last night at approximately 10:30 the Olive Fire Department was requested by the New York State DEC to assist with a search and rescue detail with our new U44-90 UTV on Friday Mountain off Moonhaw Rd,” read the piece posted by OFD Chief Chris Winne on his Facebook page the morning of December 11. “Car 44 responded with unit 4490 and a crew of six man to assist. This was the first call for our new unit…We used the vehicle to shuttle rangers to the highest point accessible by the vehicle so they could make access to the party of six that was stranded on the mountain. After the subjects were located they were escorted back to the staging area on the mountain and then shuttled back down the mountain to the roadway as well as all rangers and equipment were shuttled back down. While we operated at the scene a crew of five stood by at station 3. I am very proud of everyone involved. This unit has already proved how much it was needed and how valuable it is to life and property preservation. Good job!”

Later on Monday, December 11, Winne spoke about more than the nine hours the Olive firefighters and DEC rangers spent on Friday Mountain, noting how happy the state employees were with both the fire department’s new vehicle, and the firefighting staff itself. He said he had first realized a UTV was needed when it became clear the rail trail was happening, over a year ago, and would entail first responder needs greater than his department or local first aid workers had handled to date.

“I sat down as chief of the department and sent out letters to everyone asking for funding,” he said. In the middle of the Spring Seward’s office contacted me to say they were looking and then in August we got a letter saying they’d secured funding through the Department of Criminal Justice Services. I’d already looked into these vehicles and worked with them.”

Working from recommendations, Winne and his department had Polaris customize the vehicle so it could handle a host of potential situations. Their order was put in during September. It arrived earlier this month, prompting the scheduling of the press event with Senator Seward’s office.

“It is imperative that our first responders are properly equipped — to protect life and property and to ensure their own safety,” said Senator Seward at the December 4 press event. “This new UTV meets a critical need and the state funding eases the financial burden on the small rural volunteer department.”

“When an emergency call comes in and our crews are dispatched they are never certain exactly what they will encounter, so it is vital that we are equipped to face all circumstances,” Winne responded to the senator, in his firehouse. “We are fortunate to have many scenic recreational areas in our backyard but they do offer special challenges in the event of an emergency. Thanks to Senator Seward’s support we will be better equipped to help those in need in remote locations of the Town of Olive and beyond.”

The new Polaris 6×6 with a Kimtek skid unit, Winne went on to note, is capable of carrying 85 gallons of water and includes a 5 gallon foam cell, a 100 foot booster hose, and is equipped with a patient carry area for rescue calls in off road areas. It came with an also-purchased 8×16 enclosed trailer for transporting the UTV to emergency scenes.

“The demands on the Olive Fire Department are vast, but their financial resources are limited,” Seward continued, acknowledging the Olive Fire Department’s all volunteer force of 95 divided among five companies, and their response to approximately 220 calls per year. “The planned Ashokan Rail Trail will grow the number of people enjoying all our region has to offer, but will also place increased responsibility on the shoulders of our first responders. The department is taking sensible steps to prepare for the added challenges and I am extremely pleased to assist them with this key equipment purchase.”

Later, Chris White of the Ulster County Planning Department, who has been overseeing the permitting process and planning for construction of the Ashokan Rail Trail, noted how impressed he had been when he held a meeting of all the first responder groups in the vicinity of the rail trail in late November, to update everyone on what would be entailed during the trail construction’s two phases, including possible situations that might arise.

“We all came away knowing we’ve got great response units with adequate plans in place,” White said this week of his meeting with local fire, EMS and police employees and volunteers. “Chris Winne has been a particular pleasure to work with. His foresight in getting this UTV was impressive.”

White went on to outline recent and upcoming progress with the rail trail. The County Legislature finished its needed permit approvals last month and final environmental review details should be finished soon, meaning construction by Taylor-Montgomery would likely be starting in the coming weeks. He said the work would then proceed in two phases — the first, lasting through the end of May if all goes well weather-wise, would see the removal of all track elements and the felling and disposal of 2300 trees, most of them ash and already dead. The second, involving the installation of the trail, the rebuilding of the Boiceville bridge closed since 2011, and the “daylighting” of Buttermilk Creek and building of a new pedestrian bridge where an old culvert has collapsed would proceed with the idea of a 2019 opening for the whole deal in mind.

Winne, for his part, says he feels his department is ready for all that will be entailed with the rail trail’s clean-up and construction phases over the coming months, as well as anything that might be entailed when it’s all opened to the public in future years.

“The Polaris is going to be a real asset. Before getting this, we would have had to handle this past weekend’s missing hikers the old school way, carrying everything in and then everything out by hand,” he said. “It did our hearts good to see it utilized the way it was last weekend. All around, it felt real good.”