Wilderness Rescue: Who Should Pay?

On a recent back­pack­ing trip, a friend of mine need­ed to be res­cued as con­di­tions dete­ri­o­rat­ed. I’d always heard sto­ries of 14-hour car­ry-outs in rain and sleet, mul­ti-day search­es in sub-zero tem­per­a­tures, and even cas­es where res­cuers die. This lends the ques­tion of who should pay for back­coun­try res­cues. While it might be temp­ing to say that no one should be charged, New Hamp­shire’s his­to­ry of billing shows that the res­cues are more com­pli­cat­ed than you might think.

Who’s Get­ting Res­cued?
In the front coun­try, there’s prac­ti­cal­ly nation-wide con­sis­ten­cy in which agen­cies respond to emer­gen­cies: police and fire. There is no stan­dard for who responds to back­coun­try res­cues. In some states, a gov­ern­ment agency, like Fish and Game, the War­den Ser­vice, or even the State Police, over­sees search and res­cue oper­a­tions. Some­times, they invite vol­un­teer groups to run or help with the actu­al res­cue; this varies a lot from state to state.

Just as there’s no uni­for­mi­ty between how state’s respond to res­cues, there’s no uni­for­mi­ty in the type or fre­quen­cy of res­cues; some areas see more climb­ing-relat­ed inci­dents, while oth­ers pri­mar­i­ly respond to search­es for elder­ly peo­ple who have left home alone. These dif­fer­ences deter­mine how the state plans for search and res­cue oper­a­tions while also deter­min­ing how quick­ly funds dry up. A res­cue that takes days and uti­lizes a heli­copter is going to cost more than a hour-long search for a miss­ing hik­er. In the case of New Hamp­shire, the state says its need to charge the res­cued is a result of increased costs that they don’t have room in their bud­gets to cover.

In both 2011 and 2012, the New Hamp­shire Fish and Game depart­ment exceed­ed their search and res­cue bud­get by $200,000, a prob­lem they loose­ly attribute to the fact that 57% of their respons­es were for hik­ing or climb­ing inci­dents. Unlike fish­ing and hunt­ing, there are no per­mits for hik­ing and climb­ing, which means there is no mon­ey com­ing in to cov­er the these res­cues. Some­times these res­cues require expen­sive equip­ment, like helicopters.

Who Pays
In 2008, New Hamp­shire was thrown into the cen­ter of this debate when a 17-year old received a bill for $25,000 for costs relat­ed to a res­cue. Although the state even­tu­al­ly dropped the charges, New Hamp­shire con­tin­ues to bill res­cued par­ties. This is an attempt to re-coup res­cue-relat­ed loss­es to the New Hamp­shire Fish and Game’s bud­get. The most recent case is a Michi­gan man who is cur­rent­ly fight­ing a $9,000 bill he received after being res­cued from Fran­co­nia Ridge in 2012. For the charges to be dropped, he’ll have to prove that he was­n’t neg­li­gent on the day he was rescued.

Pub­lic out­cries over these bills has led the state to con­sid­er offer­ing a search card. This sys­tem is sim­i­lar to insurance—if you buy the card or are car­ry­ing a Fish and Game per­mit, you are pay­ing into the sys­tem and would be off the hook for the cost of a res­cue. The card is mod­eled after Col­orado’s card, the funds from which go back to the orga­ni­za­tions that respond to res­cues. This seems like a sim­pler sys­tem: very few res­cued par­ties are being billed in New Hamp­shire and those that are billed, fight the charges.

As the debate over pay­ing for res­cues con­tin­ues, the ques­tion of fre­quen­cy aris­es. As the weath­er con­tin­ues a pat­tern of increased volatil­i­ty, can we expect to see an increase in the num­ber of res­cues? Weath­er sys­tems are mov­ing in less-rec­og­niz­able pat­terns, which can catch peo­ple off guard. In the West, incon­sis­tent snow­fall has been blamed for an increase in back­coun­try activ­i­ty, even when the fore­cast is for con­sid­er­able avalanche risk. Some argue that the rise in gear mar­ket­ed as “safe­ty” equip­ment is mak­ing peo­ple more bold and less cautious.

If the num­ber of expen­sive res­cues does increase, we can all expect the debate about pay­ment to move beyond New Hampshire.