National Park Search and Rescue: Should the Rescued Help Pay the Bills?
A two-week search for a missing hiker in Yosemite National Park. A search for a missing snowshoer on Mount Rainier. Recovery of bodies from falls in Grand Teton National Park. A week-long, and unsuccessful, search for a missing 8-year-old at Crater Lake National Park.
Each year, thousands of search-and-rescue (SAR) missions are launched across the National Park System. Some are to recover bodies, others respond to boating accidents, caving misadventures, climbing mishaps, fishing trips gone awry, swimming accidents, and, of course, lost hikers.
During 2007, the National Park Service reported 3,593 SAR incidents. Of those, 136 involved fatalities. Nineteen subjects remain unaccounted for. Another 2,566 individuals sustained no injuries. There were 887 helicopter rescues, six missions requiring divers, 694 that involved horses or mules.
The cost of those missions? $4,735,424.12. How much did the Park Service recover from those who were the focus of the missions?
At times those who are rescued do donate to the park in question, and the Park Service can go to court to seek renumeration if it believes gross negligence played a role. But as a general rule the agency does not bill for SARs.
Granted, accidents do happen, more often than not, in fact. But there are other incidents where common sense seemingly failed to kick in and no doubt others where backcountry travelers, armed either with cell phones or personal locater beacons bit off more than they could safely chew because help was just a call (or push of the button) away.
Should the Park Service draw the line on free rescues? At the very least, should it bill for those where obvious disregard for safety played a role? It's a question that's been debated more than once, and which, for now, is answered with a resounding "No."
But is it time to reopen the debate?
At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which earlier this year dispatched a SAR team to Rainbow Falls Cave to rescue four would-be spelunkers who literally got in over their heads, Bob Miller sums up the Park Service's approach to billing folks for being rescued.
"We have never pursued reimbursement for SAR cost, although we often get reimbursed for resource damage or facilities damaged by a visitor," says Ranger Miller, who figures it cost the park about $2,000 to rescue the four. "It's very difficult to get anybody to pay for something that they have not agreed to pay for up front."
Mark Hnat, a Yellowstone ranger who earlier this year was detailed to the Park Service's Washington headquarters to fill in as the branch chief of emergency services, says federal agencies as a whole that are involved in SARs don't charge for their services.
"We're part of a compact with other federal search-and-rescue entities, which is part of the national search and rescue plan," Ranger Hnat explains. "That national search-and-rescue committee includes DOI, the Park Service; Department of Defense, the Air Force folks; Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, and; a couple of other agencies. It's the policy of that organization not to charge for search-and-rescue."
While costs of these missions continue to increase, the question about billing for rescues is heavy with complexities involving liabilities, he added.
"Trying to figure out the difference between what's a SAR and what's not a SAR and whose fault is it and how much liability is there ... it gets to be a pretty drawn-out process," the ranger explained. "And then how much are we going to be placing blame?"
If the agency did place blame, said Ranger Hnat, "that becomes record and now somebody's looking at somebody's reputation and back and forth. All kinds of things really make it a pretty complex operation. No other agencies are doing that at this point that I'm aware of, so it'd be a hard precedent to start."
Butch Farabee, who during his 34-year Park Service career participated in more than 1,000 SARs in such parks as Yosemite, Death Valley, and Grand Canyon and details some of those in Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite and Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, understands why the question of billing SAR targets arises from time to time.
"Of course, leaving their brains at home is the No. 1 problem for most SAR (not quite true for plane wrecks, suicides, and the such)," he notes. "Is it time to charge? This has been debated for many years. It also came to light when Alaska congressmen got into the picture over people who climb Mount McKinley and need to be rescued. I think in a perfect world -- ie., where I or some SAR guru could wave a magic wand -- I think some charging would take place. However, we do not live in a perfect world.
"It is easy to say that when people go caving or whatever without experience, training, letting someone know where they are going and all of that, then the outcry is to 'Bill Them!' That example is at the polarized edge of the controversy. Where it gets stickier is when you have a plane wreck, car wreck, suicide, little kid wanders away from a campground, a worried father of a 21-year-old calls to say his son has not returned only to find out that the 21-year-old had not intended to be back at a certain time and was in fact perfectly fine," adds Mr. Farabee. "This is where it always gets stickier, those incidents where it is not perfectly black and white."
Too, he points out, "getting reimbursed also supposes we are putting a price on people's lives. It will also possibly influence an Incident Commander on making decisions that are not appropriate for the incident."
Rick Smith, who also performed more than a few SAR missions during his three decades with the Park Service, thinks it'd be wrong to begin charging for rescues.
"It's just one more way to exclude people of lesser means from the parks," says Mr. Smith. "I'm not a big fan of the idea, although I see some merit in asking people who do really high risk things --climbing Denali-- to buy some kind of insurance. But I am very reluctant to put a price tag on adventure."
He also would give a pass to those who wind up over their heads.
"A person who has lived in L.A. all his/her life and goes to Yosemite for the first time does not really understand the power of running water, or the fact that it's easier to climb up rocks than it is to descend," says Mr. Smith. "What seems exceptionally stupid may be nothing more than lack of experience. How do we price gathering experience?"
Now, at Denali National Park and Preserve, which like Grand Teton sees a lot of climbing SARs, rescued climbers are not billed for the missions. But those attempting either Mount McKinley or Mount Foraker are charged $200 per person "to provide educational materials to them ahead of time and to support the resource protection (Clean Mountain Can) and other operations we have on the mountain," says Denali spokeswoman Kris Fister. "Climbers do have to pay for the air or land ambulance service from Talkeetna to Anchorage. But we get them off the mountain."
Almost a decade ago, in the wake of the well-publicized 1996 climbing accident on Mount Everest that inspired Jon Krakauer's book, Into Thin Air, and ensuing accidents and rescues on Mount Rainier and Mount McKinley, the then-executive director of the American Alpine Club produced a study on Rescue Cost Recovery (attached below) in Denali.
Many involved in the debate, including the rescue community itself, feel that any rescue cost recovery alternatives must be very carefully considered, Charley Shimanski wrote. Rescuers are concerned that a charge for rescue will lead to delays in the call for help, thus causing more complicated rescues and putting both rescuers and victims in greater risk. Land managers are concerned that charging for rescue will result in administrative hassles associated with trying to collect from the uninsured. Military aviation units see no reason to recover costs, since they use civilian SAR missions as valuable training exercises. National Park Service officials realize that mandating a charge for rescue will likely create a legal "duty to rescue."
In Europe, a slightly different approach is taken, as insurance is available to backcountry skiers to cover rescue costs.
Should the Park Service require insurance coverage for backcountry travelers? It's a good question, one that could help offset the agency's costs, but one that possibly could generate more problems by lending backcountry travelers a measure of reckless bravado as they might figure someone's waiting to pull them out of trouble.
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