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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, another perspective on your comment about what is spent on defense and why we should lend the helping hands on SARs, well here is a try. Social Security, and Medicare take up a major faction of federal spending amounting to roughly 58% of the total federal outlays, whereas military spending is only about 18%. US news and World Report and other web-sites point this out. The problem with this representation is that Social Security and Medicare are parts of the mandatory spending of the federal government financed by the dedicated revenue raised from payroll taxes as imposed by FICA and through medicare payroll deductions and Income taxes. If we separate the above mandatory spending (its interesting to note this is now called entitlements when all of us pay into Social Security and Medicare, in my case for over 50 years now), but in any case if we look only at the discretionary spending appropriated by Congress on an annual basis, a different picture arises and then military spending equates to roughly 57% of the discretionary budget. When we compare that to the other world powers, only China comes close at 8.2%. Sources -Google, Federal Budget. many informative articles including the 2013 Federal budget.

Thanks Ron. You point out one more example of how "facts" can be so easily twisted to meet whatever agenda one wants to put forth. Whatever happened to plain old honesty?

That's right Ron, defense is discretionary - we really don't need it. (Sigh) Its only one of the designated powers of the constitution where as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid (huge transfer payments which are only "mandatory" because they are mandated by Congress) have no Constitutional basis.

Even though Social Security and Medicare is a biggest chunk of gov't spending, it is shown on my pay stub as collected seperately. For lower paid individuals it probably is a larger part of the total of taxes paid. That money should not be used for anything else but what it is mandated for. And probably should not be included in total gov't spending because it is not discretionary. At least in my eyes, that is the problem with your chart. If you take S.S. and Med. out of your pie chart, defense is a large chunk.

I don't know about you guys but I paid my social security taxes and that's what it was and is a tax. Because I was self employed I paid 15% of my income to it.When I get that check each month I don't look at it as a gift from the government but something I earned after many years of long hours and hard work.I never felt that it was wrong that I was paying it because I would see the return down the road.

The problem is the goverment has spent that money like a drunken soldier.

Agreed. When I get my pittance of a Social Security check each month it is MY money I'm getting back. It has NOTHING to do with any deficit.

"Entitlement"? Damn right I'm entitled to my own money back that I paid into for 45 years and was promised back. "Entitlement" is only a dirty word to the partisans on the right.

Can anyone tell us which president presided over the first raids on social security to use the money for other purposes?

Rick - Do you expect to get everthing back that you paid into SS and Medicare/Medicaid with a reasonable return? If you are getting back your own money, why not abolish SS and keep the money to begin with? SS and Medicare/aid are nothing but a giant ponzi scheme with the government being the scamster.

{edit} And by the way Rick - I believe you are entitled to your SS payments. The govt made a promise and they should stick to it. But the system is not sustainable. No one of merit is suggest the current or soon to be retires have payments cut. What is being suggested is that the system be modified to ween the public of this addiction. The problem is that there are too many people that are net beneficiaries from the current system of others' expense.

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