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.