Outdoor Rescues: Who Pays the Bill?

©istockphoto/KIVILCIM PINAR

You have ven­tured into the wilder­ness, or at least some wild or remote place, and you find your­self in trou­ble you can’t quite han­dle. Some­how, one of var­i­ous 911 agen­cies is con­tact­ed. You thank­ful­ly find your­self extract­ed from your sit­u­a­tion by a heli­copter crew, or by a num­ber of fire­men or sim­i­lar­ly trained pro­fes­sion­als who hoist or oth­er­wise extract you from your unde­sired ordeal. It’s a gov­ern­ment ser­vice, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Where you are, and whether you were neg­li­gent, could like­ly sway whether a Search and Res­cue (SAR) bill shows up in your mailbox.

There are sev­er­al ques­tions that impact if you pay or if the state does. One is, “How expen­sive is the res­cue?” If the para­medics need to evac­u­ate you from the trail­head, the odds are they’ll have you cov­ered. If heli­copters hoist you from a cliff in the back­coun­try, then you might not be so for­tu­nate. Res­cue per­son­nel and asso­ci­at­ed agen­cies have costs to be account­ed for. Per­haps their bud­get doesn’t have those funds, but you do want to be res­cued, don’t you?

Sec­ond­ly, should the ques­tion of irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty come into the equa­tion? It does in the minds of those who feel the res­cued individual(s) should bear a respon­si­bil­i­ty if they were neg­li­gent in their actions. After all, they ask, why should the gov­ern­ment (and ulti­mate­ly the pub­lic, who funds the gov­ern­ment) be expect­ed to pay for some­one else’s negligence?

Also, does the gov­ern­ment owe the pub­lic this ser­vice? While this next com­ment skirts around the ques­tion, some­what, it is relat­ed. That is, if a SAR occurs with­in a Nation­al Park, you won’t get a bill. At least, that’s where it stands today, but that could change if bud­gets are too strapped for too long.

Get out of trou­ble free cards
The State of Utah recent­ly (Q1, 2015) passed a bill allow­ing for the sale of a “get-res­cued-free card” for peo­ple head­ed into the back­coun­try. If a res­cue is required, the card (pur­chased in advance at a cost of $20–30) would save the res­cued per­son from hav­ing to reim­burse the coun­ty for the SAR. Each of the state’s 29 coun­ties has the abil­i­ty to recoup these often high costs, but cur­rent­ly only two of the coun­ties (Wayne and Grand) are active­ly send­ing out bills. The Salt Lake Tri­bune ran a sto­ry that SAR in these two coun­ties result­ed in at least two bills—one res­cue result­ed in a $750 bill; anoth­er, involv­ing a heli­copter, ran $4,000.

The Cal­i­for­nia Prece­dent
A tele­vi­sion news report from Bak­ers­field, Cal­i­for­nia stat­ed that San Diego Coun­ty passed an ordi­nance in 2013 allow­ing for a civ­il process to col­lect up to $12,000 toward res­cue expens­es. Only those who broke the law would be liable for the costs. This means the case would be heard by a judge.

A Cal­i­for­nia assem­bly­man spon­sored a bill in 2014 that would allow coun­ties to recoup expens­es. The impe­tus for this came about after the res­cue of two hik­ers in Tra­bu­co Canyon, cost­ing var­i­ous agen­cies over $160,000. The gov­er­nor vetoed the bill, but that may not be the case some­time in the future.

Res­cues aren’t just per­formed in wilder­ness areas. The Coast Guard is one enti­ty that read­i­ly comes to mind when think­ing of res­cues at sea. One such res­cue, lead by the Coast Guard, the Navy, and the Cal­i­for­nia Air Nation­al Guard involved res­cu­ing a very sick child from a sail­boat that was on an around-the-world sail. A Coast Guard spokes­woman said they don’t charge because res­cues are a part of what they do.

Search and Res­cue Insur­ance
SAR insur­ance just might save your bank account if you get in a pick­le in the moun­tains (or the desert, or the ocean, or…). The Amer­i­can Alpine Club, for one, includes two dif­fer­ent $5,000 res­cue poli­cies (pos­si­bly total­ing $10,000) for its mem­bers. If you’re head­ing out to sea, find out if your yacht insur­ance cov­ers res­cues. The Col­orado Out­door Recre­ation Search and Res­cue Card isn’t an insur­ance card, but the low-cost card—purchased by out­door adventurers—enables a fund that helps agen­cies recoup their costs. In the French Alps, you can pur­chase SAR insurance.

One thing is clear. It would be pru­dent to check with the region in which you plan on under­tak­ing poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous activ­i­ties. Per­haps you feel it’s unnec­es­sary, that SAR isn’t any dif­fer­ent than hav­ing the fire depart­ment respond to your house burn­ing, or the police sav­ing you from an ill-intend­ed crook. That is, you feel you shouldn’t have to pay. But you cer­tain­ly don’t want an unex­pect­ed bill in your mailbox.