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.
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.