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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.


Interesting discussion on this topic. And it's surely one that will continue to pop up from time to time.

A key problem with un-billed SARs, however, is that the NPS seemingly has no dedicated national SAR fund from which to reimburse parks for SARs. As a result, funds are redirected from elsewhere, to the detriment of those programs. And then, as Chief Ranger points out, different parks track SAR expenses differently.

Anyone out there know why the Park Service hasn't created a dedicated SAR fund, or why parks don't follow the same paper trail in tracking their SAR expenses?

I think that each SAR callout should be reviewed and if it is deemed that "recklessness" is the over riding contributing factor then there should be repercussions to the parties involved. This could be in the form of fines, community service, teaching others or some other form of "pay back" other then a total reimbursement for the SAR expense. Recklessness is determined by what a knowledgeable prudent person would be doing and equipped for given the circumstances. In an example above someone mentions the diabetic not drinking for 24 hours prior to the race and bonking out 5-6 miles into it. This is reckless behavior. People hike into the Grand Canyon NP every year with "a bottle" of water, the rangers do their best to discourage this, but there is nothing they can do to stop this kind of behavior. This is reckless behavior. Going back country skiing without the proper avalanche equipment or when the danger is High is reckless behavior. If people knew they could suffer repercussions for recklessness then maybe many would think twice before engaging in activities they are not trained for or prepared for.

The NPS, BLM, NFS can easily come up with a cost analysis spreadsheet that can determine the cost of a SAR operation. Accountants are very good at this and make it uniform throughout the fed and state governments so that services can factor in these operations into their budgets.

Personally, I think more SAR operations are not for the crazies or the extreme high adventure people that get the press, but for the hiker who takes the wrong turn and gets lost, the backpacker who falls and can not hike out, the kayaker who gets rolled and entangled in river debris; but I think MOST SAR operations are for people who don't think about where they are going and are not prepared properly for their outing. Some would fall into the category of recklessness, but I think most would just make it to the "stupid" category. In my opinion.

Jim.hiker great observation on who is really getting rescued. Before we launch into Human Error, Gross or Reckless Negligence or Intentional Rule Violator decisions the National Park Service needs to start treating our visitors like adults. When we accept responsibility for creating the nuisance in the first place and mitigate it, post appropriate warnings and honestly relay what the ramifications are if you choose to disregard the warnings we might see some folks make the right decision in the first place. Our visiting public is smarter than we give them credit for. When you are drawn like a moth to the flame towards the lava spewing into the ocean to get a glimpse of Pele you pass signs that tell you in no uncertain terms what your fate will be if you play with lava. I think most adults can figure that out. Nowhere on that hike do we accurately post the ramifications for walking on unstable terrain for 2 miles in flip flops, sandals, motorcycle boots and high heels. These unsuspecting visitors embark on the journey only to meet their fate of a serious knee or ankle injury that keeps them from their original destination. Human Error, Gross or Reckless Negligence or Intentional Rule Violator? If we spent the time and energy at this level we would decrease our SAR work load significantly. I'm all for holding people accountable for their actions, it's a tool we have and use. Clearly it's not the answer to this significant fiscal dilemma. I’m not ready to charge the public (honest error) for a rescue if we’ve not done our due diligence and as you’ve pointed out this is where we spend the majority of our time and energy.

You know what I think...... If the Gov can spend trillions on war, they could take 1% that they use to kill people and spend it to save people. wow?! Im so fed up with good people losing their lives over the dollar or lack there of, when our Gov waste so much.

Steve - you have an interesting knee-jerk reaction, well not really interesting, more common place. Let's see, in 2006 “…836,131 missing-person records were entered into the National Crime Information Center's Missing Person File” (Eng. 2008).

I guess we should make all of those people pay for their rescues too?

We are all (maybe not you) tax paying citizens, for which we recieve police, fire, park ranger services. Some simply choose to day hike in the National Parks, so when rescue becomes necessary due to "unforeeable" events, should they be "taxed" more than the "idiot" who doesn't "foresee his house catching on fire," and falls asleep on his couch smoking and causing the fire department, police and ambulance to come to his house? According to you apparently so because he wasn't wearing a PLB.

Should all the people who get lost walking from their car to their tent (NON-mountain climbers), which account for 84% of all SAR events annually, be charged for their rescue or be required to carry locator beacons?

That won't stop idiots from being idiots.

By your qualification, someone carrying a locator beacon or satillite phone escapes being charged for their rescue because they were not idiots....well this shows how truly lacking in foresight you were in lining up your statements. Take for example this story: In September 2009 two men, very inexperienced in backpacking, and their two teenage sons attempted the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop, and “carried a personal locator beacon - just in case.” During the trip, in the course of three days they pushed the “panic button” three separate times mobilizing helicopters for the daring rescue inside the canyon walls. Upon being forced into a helicopter on after the third “panic,” one of the hikers stated, we” never would have attempted this hike” without the locator beacon. Maybe these men shouldn’t have been out there in the first place. These type of incidents are becoming so frequent “the head of California's Search and Rescue operation has a name for the devices: Yuppie 911” (Cone 2009).

Steve are you a Yuppie?

Cited Sources you might want to review:
Bradley, Ryan. “Q+A: Mountain Rescue Myths Debunked: Mount Hood Rescue 2006”. National Geographic Adventure Magazine. National Geographic online. Web 14, January 2010.

Cone, Tracie. “Locator beacons being used as Yuppie 911 by some hikers”
The Charleston Gazette. Charleston, W.V.:Oct 26, 2009. p. A.2

Eng, Heather. "Technology to the Rescue." PC Magazine 27.6 (2008): 19-20. Academic Search
Premier. EBSCO. Web. 21 Jan. 2010.

Farran, Sandra. "Technology hits the trails." Maclean's 109.12 (1996): 64. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 14 Jan. 2010.

Graham, David, A.. “A Mountain of Bills, Who should have to pay to rescue stranded climbers?”. NewsWeek online (December 17, 2009). Web 14 Jan. 2010.

Heggie, Travis, W. “Search and rescue trends associated with recreational travel in US national parks”. J Travel Med. 2009 Jan-Feb;16 (1):23-7. Web. 21 Jan. 2010.

Heggie TW, Amundson ME. “Dead men walking: search and rescue in US National Parks”. Wilderness Environ Med. 2009 Fall;20v (3):244-9. Web 21, 2010.

Johnson, Rich. "Get Saved Anywhere." Outdoor Life 215.4 (2008): 24-25. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 21 Jan. 2010.

Mitchell, Dan. "Lost? A personal locator beacon could save your life.(Business/Financial Desk)." The New York Times. (July 5, 2007): C7(L). Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. Clark College - Cannell Library. 14 Jan. 2010

National Association for Search & Rescue, “NASAR Guide to SMART use of Emergency Signaling Devices” NASAR online January 14, 2009. Web 14 January 2010.

Stienstra, Tom. "Lost in Mount Baldy snow, hiker saved by technology.(OUTDOORS)(Column)." San Francisco Chronicle. (Feb 10, 2008): C11. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. Clark College - Cannell Library. 14 Jan. 2010

Always think before doing anything stupid-I would ask myself-Do I want to be in any sisuation-to have to put the resuers lives at stake?No.

I think Diver.Sixx made a good point, I am inclined to agree with him. I do think there is a means to charge those who show gross negligence in judgement, at least in the parks I have worked in, otherwise lets lend the helping hand.

Diver sixx - $115 billion in the global war on terror (including Iraq and Afghanistan) in 2012 (constitutional). $2.48 Trillion entitlements (mostly unconstitutional). I think you are looking in the wrong bucket for your SAR money. And yes, "victims" should pay the cost of their SAR in cases of gross negligence or false/unnecessary calls if they haven't already paid SAR insurance.

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