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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.


Lee, interesting post, I am certainly no expert on the issue of Social Security except to say how beneficial it has been to both my spouse and I as well as extended family members. Some stats show that sixty percent of Americans receive at least two thirds of their retirement income from social security, but the payments received replace less than 40% of their earning averages. Currently, only about 15% of employees have traditional defined-benefit pensions at their workplace and 55% have no retirement plan at all. As pointed out on nightline, many problems developing with 401 Ks, etc. There are those that are calling for adding a supplement to social security that would guarantee all retirees about 60% of their average wage in retirement (similar to that of most developed nations). This would be accomplished, not by increasing the payroll tax, but by raising the payroll tax cap and eliminating top end tax breaks now offered to private retirement plans that disproportionately benefit the wealthiest americans.

I too would defer to those responsible for and working in SAR and say don't charge. That said, it would be nice to find a way to impose some kind of penalty to those that exhibit gross negligence or venture out with an expectation of rescue when it starts raining. I suspect (or at least hope) that these individuals are a very small minority so perhaps it isn't worth the effort as there will always be, as Kirby pointed out, difficulty in defining when whatever line is established gets crossed. Thanks to those that were able to keep their comments on topic.

many problems developing with 401 Ks, etc.

Oh, like what - someone gets to keep their own money?

There are those that are calling for adding a supplement to social security that would guarantee all retirees about 60% of their average wage

Of course there are some calling for that. The "gimmie" some. Why should anybody be guranteed a certain level of income at retirement at someone elses expense?

I'll agree entirely with wild places and others who think there should be some way of billing those who are grossly negligent. Like those who pass a whole forest of signs along the upper reaches of Bright Angel Trail and continue deep into the canyon wearing flip-flops or carrying no water. (Although I think they may actually have to pay for their mule ride out. But that's an exception if it is the case.)

ec, before writing anything else, do some good research. You can watch the Frontline piece via the PBS website. It points out that the people who get "to keep the money" are not always those who are depositing it into their 401 accounts. And Ron, thanks for some facts. It's always refreshing when someone posts facts instead of opinions.

Now let's get back to SAR topics.

Lee et al, from my conversations with Park Service personnel, they do have the option of billing for gross negligence, but it seldom seems to happen.

are not always those who are depositing

Sounds like SS and Medicare to me.

You shouldn't have to pay for rescue at all depending on the situation that's bull people get lost and people need help sometime everyone does so wait till your broke and need help hope you realize 

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