December 30, 2012

Rescued in Oregon - how much you might pay out of pocket

English: An AS-332 Super Puma, of the Hellenic...
Search and rescue helicopter
To pay or not to pay?

That is the question increasingly posed when hikers, or anyone else for that matter, are rescued. Should those rescued pay the cost of their own rescue? It is a sticky question, where a black and white answer is possible, but varying tones of gray seem most reasonable.

A letter sent to Chico, California’s Enterprise-Record:

I'm glad to see that the story about Robert Marmon, the lost hiker, had a happy ending. His frozen, partially eaten body could have easily been the lead story of the paper during spring thaw in March.

Hiking cross country by yourself in winter conditions and at high elevations defies logic and common sense. Did he not check the weather forecast? Apparently he did not have a spare set of dry clothes. Did he not think he would get wet on that trip? What was he thinking?

He apologized to the cabin owner for breaking in but no mention was made of an apology to the search and rescue team and helicopter pilot for putting their lives at risk to save his sorry self.

I certainly hope he is sent a bill for the thousands of dollars of expense that it cost to conduct the search.

Marmon, a resident of Chico, had been missing for three days before search and rescue located him on Christmas Eve in several feet of snow. He had broken into a cabin to survive after attempting to hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

According to a Time magazine article, the U.S. National Park Service spends nearly $5 million annually on search and rescue (SAR) missions. This doesn’t include the man hours going into these searches. Unless a park rule has been violated, those rescued are not responsible for the cost. This means that you and I pay for the cost of these rescues in National Parks.

In Wyoming’s Teton County, the search and rescue crew works in conjunction with the county sheriff. Each year, they conduct an average of 70 rescues. While most rescuers are volunteers, costs associated with leasing a helicopter and maintaining equipment accumulate. Apparently, those rescued are charged for helicopter flight time of $1,600 per hour, but payment is not strictly enforced.

Wary of being charged for a rescue, some outdoor enthusiasts have refused help, saying they couldn’t afford to pay for the rescue.

Currently, six states allow for billing of search and rescue operations to some degree. Oregon is one of them (New Hampshire, Hawaii, Vermont, Idaho, Colorado are the others).

In Oregon, a public body that has authority to conduct search and rescue activities may collect no more than $500 from each individual rescued and no more than the actual cost of the SAR operation from all individuals rescued. Furthermore, the body can only obtain reimbursement when “reasonable care was not exercised by the individuals for whose benefit the search and rescue activities are conducted; or applicable laws were violated by such individuals."

“Reasonable care” is defined as the possession and use of equipment appropriate for the weather conditions and terrain, attempts to use locating devices or cellular phones when appropriate, notifying individuals of expected return times and planned locations and routes, and possession of maps and orienteering equipment appropriate for the conditions.

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