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Billing For Search and Rescue Missions -- Yes, or No?


SAR personnel practice a mission in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. NASAR photo.

Should search-and-rescue (SAR) subjects be billed for the cost of their rescue? It's long been a thorny issue, one that organizations that respond to SARs long have opposed.

The topic has been broached here on the Traveler in the past, but in light of our recent article on staying safe in the parks, and that of the rescue of a couple in Dinosaur National Monument, it seems fitting to revisit it, particularly in light of a news release from the National Association for Search and Rescue.

The release, issued last week by NASAR, the Mountain Rescue Association, the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, the International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists, the United States Coast Guard and the National Park Service, reiterated those groups' stance that they all either oppose billing, or do not bill, people after a search-and-rescue operation.

“Although it remains a local decision, billing for search and rescue operations is a dangerous practice that should be avoided,” said NASAR President Dan Hourihan.

NASAR's position:

To eliminate the fear of being unable to pay for having one’s life saved, SAR services should be rendered to persons in danger or distress without subsequent cost-recovery from the person(s) assisted unless prior arrangements have been made. The mission of SAR organizations is to save lives, not just the lives of those who can afford to pay the bill. As such, methods and means should be developed and used that diffuse the cost of humanitarian SAR operations among the many, allowing ­anyone to reasonably expect emergency aid without regard to their circumstances.

According to the release, "the idea of not billing for SAR services confuses many people. However, SAR professionals across the nation know of many instances in which someone – after an unforeseen accident, or spending hours searching for their missing companion – delayed calling for help. Each 'remembered' hearing, seeing or reading, 'somewhere' that rescues and searches cost 'thousands of dollars' – which they could not afford. Some have even chosen not to call for help, or refused emergency help."

To underscore this fear, the organizations cited a 2006 case in which a young hiker became stranded on Colorado’s 14,270-foot Quandary Peak. "She called 9-1-1, but asked the SAR team leader just to 'talk her out of the area,'" noted the organizations.

"The sun had already set and cold weather surrounded her in a dangerous area of the mountain. She repeatedly said the SAR team should not come to help her. After going back and forth with her on her cell phone, the SAR team leader finally asked why she didn't want help. She replied, 'I can't afford it.' He explained that there would be no charge and she then relented," noted the groups.

Additional examples where people initially refused help can be found in the attachments below.

“A delay can place SAR personnel in danger and can unnecessarily compound and lengthen a SAR mission,” says Mr. Hourihan. “Not calling for emergency SAR help could be as catastrophic as not calling the fire department when a small stove-top fire jumps to the ceiling and instantly fills the kitchen with flames, because the home owner’s first thought was, ‘How in the world will I pay the fire department?’”

Then-U.S.C.G. Commandant James Loy perhaps explained it best, in 1999, in the Coast Guard’s very similar position. “If the specter of financial reimbursement hung over the decision to report maritime distress, we could get fewer calls, we would get calls during later stages of emergencies, and more people would die at sea. This factor alone outweighs any consideration of how much money we might recoup,” said Admiral Loy.

Traveler footnote: Founded in 1973, the National Association for Search and Rescue comprises more than 10,000 volunteer and paid search and rescue professionals who work at the local, state and national level in land, aviation and water SAR. NASAR conducts hundreds of training courses and thousands of certification exams each year. More than 11,000 people hold any of 11 NASAR certifications in SAR operations.


No... for all the reasons listed by the professionals. In reply to the comment about calling 911 and having to pay for the ambulance: I'm sure that there are many people who put off calling 911 who opt instead to "tough it out" only to have their situation worsen. Some, of course, arrange their own transportation from a family member or friend to avoid the cost of an ambulance when that seems overkill. There is no such alternative if you are injured, stranded or lost in the wilderness.

In my experience in mountain rescue most teams are volunteers, drive their own vehicles and supply much of the equipment at no cost to the taxpayers. We don't need government assessing charges to victims when the services are provided free by volunteers. For the limited number of paid rescuers (generally park rangers) they generally are hired for other duties and respond to rescues as needed. Except for the cost of training and equipment, there is very little impact on their agency's budget.

BUT MOST IMPORTANT! Regardless of how smart or stupid someone is, each life is precious so let's not castigate some for the predicaments they get in. Likewise everyone should feel confident they will receive rescue services when and if they need them without respect to ability to pay. Throw out the rescue fee and the ability to pay is a non-issue. I don't want to ever hear again of a young lady who refuses help "because my Dad will kill me when he gets the bill!"

Never charge for this service!

If you charge for this service, it is NOT the idiots that wandered off recklessly that you will be "punishing" -it is their CHILDREN who they took with them who will suffer!! These same people who didn't bring a beacon or even a map for that matter are the same ones dragging a 5 year old up a mountian, and when things take a turn for the worse you NEVER want a parent to hesitate to get emergency help for 5 YEAR OLD because they are trying to figure out if they have room on a credit card for the bill! Seriously, why is this even being debated?

P.S. if you can not pay for an ambulance ride and it was deemed medically necessary, it's free in Maryland for this exact reason. No one should hesitate to call for help for someone in life or death circumstances because of the cost.

There is no such alternative if you are injured, stranded or lost in the wilderness.

What business do they have in the wilderness. If someone goes into the wilderness or climbs a mountain just for fun why shouldn't they pay for any expense incurred. If someone else has to pay for their rescue why not also pay for their equipment and send them to school to learn safety in their hobby. If a child wanders away from camp and gets lost that is different. If a grown person makes a decision to put their life in danger for a thrill they should pay for their foolishness.

That is the way I see it but, if someone wants to furnish the equipment and volunteer their time and expense or solicit money for that purpose then "God bless them"

"Seriously, why is this even being debated?"

It's being debated because some people have different opinions. I personally don't feel having a child in tow should give someone carte blanche to act recklessly and expect rescue with no repercussions. Someone mentioned above that local law enforcement often have the discretion to bill (or presumably even file charges against?) people that take unnecessary risks that require SAR. That sounds like a good system to me. But what if the people with the 5 year old know they might get a bill? Will they hesitate then? Should we make it clear that no one gets billed under any circumstances so these folks can go wild and put their children at risk without threats to their finances or liberty? I would think it would be in the best interest of the 5-year-old if the parents could expect some serious repercussions for putting the child at risk in the first place. Making sure the parents know there's free rescue available seems like a horrible thing to do for the welfare of the kids when their parents are this ignorant to start with.

I think the "crazies" out there are quite rare.

I spent some seven years on one of the busier SAR teams in Colorado. We clocked between 100 - 150 missions a year. I don't recall a single mission where a parent recklessly put their child in danger. I can count perhaps 5 or 6 where an adult acted irresponsibly which resulted in a rescue/recovery. Two died in separate incidents while thrill skiing off a cliff. One was caught in an avalance. All three were "expert" skiers. In another incident our team was providing support for a mountain marathon. One gentleman from Arkansas who was diabetic decided to challenge himself by not hydating for 24 hours before the race. He crashed and burned about six miles into the race on a hot August morning. We have had a handful of suicides. Not a single taxpayer's cent was spent to rescue/recover these people, yet they were cared for by our team. Of course it seems appropriate to charge or fine the guy from Arkansas for his stupidity but it's not worth the trouble. As for the others.....? Well... they are dead!

There are no ski resorts in our county. I have read news articles averaging perhaps a couple per year where skiers in Colorado have gone "out of bounds" at resorts and into danger zones to end up missing, injured, or worse. These incidents generally get more press coverage so perhaps the public gets the idea that irresponsbile people are the cause of more SAR missions than is actually the case. I know that our missions rarely got press coverage and the vast majority were successful missions and did not involve significant irresponsibility by the victims.

In my experience, outdoors people, are generally quite responsible, care for the environment, and take pride in their skills to remain safe. A good many of them know more about survival than the average person. They are clearly not a burden on the system.

There will always be people with bad judgement. Everyone is a novice when they first venture into a new environment. We have to take care of them along with the others... no charge!

reading this article and comments changed my mind somewhat. There are questions, though Public lands are exempt from local taxes. Local police, fire and EMS staff and equipment are often involved in SAR operations. Shouldn't there be some compensation to the local taxpayer? Then there is the moral hazard issue. Do people take needless risks because they know that someone will bail them out?

ronlee67 -

Thanks for some excellent first-hand perspective.

A topic we can all get our teeth into. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion. Much better than guns in parks. Search and Rescue is a huge operational cost to the National Park Service. The question to bill cannot be asked nor explored until the service can accurately identify the true cost of doing this business. Of the 391 units in the National Park Service I'd 3 of them report the same. Absent a pay code for this type of work too many of our employees and volunteers provide this service without any of us knowing what the true cost is. We do not look at what we paid out the previous year and factor it into our budgets as a line item. Each unit is left up to reaching that magic goal of $500 dollars to get a major SAR account and reimbursement from the regional and national level. It's not a mystery where that funding comes from, it is however a mystery of who's smart enough to use it.

A second issue is certification/qualification. If we look at the staff that predominantly provide search and rescue many of them spend an incredible amount of time maintaining structural fire, ems, instructor certifications and law enforcement. It's not a bad idea of professionalizing SAR, however if we do let's increase the base budget and factor that time and cost associated with it so we don't have the same 5 people taking on the work load of 15. It all comes down to supply and demand. Before those of you who provide rescue to the general public say "no" too quickly, think about where the money is coming from. If the National Park Service could provide equal reimbursement, staffing and training to all of the units that respond day in and day out to SAR missions I'd think you'd hear a resounding "No". When they don't and parks are left footing the bill it leads to one thing.....shortfalls for field staff.....and at the end of the day once again we see our front line heroes pay the price. So who really should be paying for Search and Rescue?

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