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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.


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.

ecbuck, would be interested in your breakdown on the 2.2 trillion, (did I get that right?), in entitlements, ie what are the entitlements, what are the costs and sources you refer to get these stats. Thanks.

I'm inclined to agree with Diver-sixx and rmackie, as well as with jim.hiker and Chief Ranger.

No, seriously. An unbiased source, not the Heritage Foundation. That was a cute try though.

Rich - turned to your usually tactics I see- attack the messenger and ignore the message (Saul Alinsky at his best). If you think those numbers are wrong - show a source that says something different.

BTW - here is a US News and World report story that says (essentially - different years) the same thing. $2.2 billion of entitlement spending in 2010:

"In 2010, entitlement spending had grown to be almost 100 times higher than it was in 1960; it has increased by an explosive 9.5 percent per year for 50 straight years. Entitlement transfer payments to individuals (such as for income, healthcare, age, and unemployment) have been growing twice as fast as per capita income for 20 years, totaling $2.2 trillion in 2010 alone—which was greater than the entire gross domestic product of Italy and roughly the same as the GDP of Great Britain.

In 1960, entitlement spending accounted for less than a third of all federal spending; in 2010, it was just about two thirds of government outlays, with everything else—defense, justice, all the other duties of government—making up less than one third."

Perhaps you should pay a little more attention to the Heritage Foundation, you might actually learn something.

That was a cute try though.

It appears this discussion has wandered off the trail, gotten seriously lost, and is need of a SAR mission of its own :-)

However, a comment a bit earlier by Vanny Thompson raises an interesting point on the topic at hand. He said, "Billing for search and rescue missions must be supported by the government and must be given an exact budget."

Perhaps Vanny meant SAR activities should have their own, dedicated budget? One of the many budget challenges for NPS managers is the difficulty in planning for costs for emergencies such as SAR missions. In large parks with a long track record of such activites it's possible to make an educated guess from year to year, but even so, a major SAR incident can run up a lot of costs, and if this occurs near the end of the fiscal year, it's a potential financial problem.

Well, we know one thing we aren't going to change people that don't think for themselves or are the born risk takers.

I think the simple fact that they may incure some sort of charge if they are so inclined to foolish actions that it may cost them something rather than walking away from the act and doing it at a future date or looking at it as a big joke when it's all said and done.Money,community service,nolonger allowed to use these parks,etc.would help maybe ?

Let's face it their is no easy anwser but that's what life is all about. Tomorrow any one of us may take our last breath weather it is by our actions or God's calling.

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