If there is one seemingly unsolvable quandary in the outdoors, it’s whether people who are rescued should be billed by their rescuers.
There are a lot of threads to this narrative. First, search and rescue costs can be expensive – even with volunteers doing most of the work, it costs money to reach remote locations and sometimes fly helicopters to find and extricate distressed hikers and climbers. Many of these rescues happen in rural counties that are strapped for cash as it is. In some cases, they’ll get help from military units (flight time for helicopter rescues goes down as training for the crews involved), but a lot of times you’re also involving county personnel like sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and EMTs who get paid to be out there. Someone must foot the bill at some point.
Federal workers get wrapped up in it, too. As do their resources. They often work alongside state and county rescuers, mostly because the bulk of these rescues are taking place on public lands, and most of those are federally owned.
Some search and rescue efforts that stretch into days, involving air and ground crews, can run up a serious tab.
Another subplot: Those in need of rescue are often at fault for their own predicament. That sounds harsh, but usually it’s true. Dehydrated hikers in the Grand Canyon often underestimate the heat and don’t bring enough water. Alpine hikers and climbers misjudge the terrain, the weather and sometimes their own capabilities in environments that are inherently challenging. Gear junkies sometimes place too much trust in electronic devices that fail when signals are lost, or batteries go dead. Those with emergency locator beacons are, at times, bolder than they’d normally be, either taking greater chances or, in some cases, activating their locators when they are simply tired of the effort.
Given the greater numbers of people who are heading into the backcountry, the costs of rescues are piling up.
This has pushed some states to enact policies that would make rescued parties liable for the costs of their salvation. New Hampshire is one of those states, and a recent story by The Associated Press highlighted one such instance where an overwhelmed hiker might end up getting billed for the trouble.
The hiker, 80-year-old James Clark, was ascending Mount Washington with two of his grandsons when he told them to go on to the summit without him. The younger men did so, then took a different route down, the AP reported. Clark didn’t meet them back at the trailhead, and that’s when search and rescue was called.
“Clark was found Friday immobile in the fetal position with signs of hypothermia hours after telling his two grandsons to go on without him. Clark was treated at a hospital for non-life-threatening injuries and released Saturday,” the AP reported.
Mount Washington and the surrounding peaks can be tricky. Already, two other people died in the area within a week of Clark’s rescue. The mountain is known for having some of the worst weather on the planet. Rescuers said Clark wasn’t dressed for the potential weather extremes seen on the peak, which can be summery and warm at the base and full-on winter conditions on the summit, often with little warning.
That alleged lack of preparation is what might end up being the reason Clark gets socked with the tab.
I’ve got mixed feeling about this. Part of me thinks people should be held accountable for the bad decisions they make. Plenty of information exists, available at your fingertips, that can guide your preparations for the outdoors. Choosing not to be informed is just that: a choice. And in most areas of life, bad choices have consequences. Maybe some of those consequences should hit folks in the wallet. Perhaps a financial incentive would make people more self-reliant, more prepared, and safer.
But my thinking gets turned around when human nature comes into play. It goes something like this:
A hiker gets lost. Or injured. Or something else happens that makes that person think, “I’m in some trouble here.” But before activating that beacon or pulling out the phone for a 911 call, the hiker pauses.
This is gonna cost me. A lot. Maybe I can tough it out.
And then the hiker gets deeper in trouble, maybe irrecoverably.
That’s the fear I’ve heard expressed on forums by people who are part of the search and rescue community. They worry that folks will choose saving money over their own lives when they get in trouble, and that leads to more search and recovery missions instead of search and rescue. Crews will still take risks in recovery missions; they differ in that the ending of a recovery mission is always a mournful one.
As I’ve thought about this, the prospect of saving lives outweighs the irritation I feel about people being dumb. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want people pushing the button on their SPOT device because their feet are tired. I want people to be responsible. But I don’t want people dying in the bush because they were afraid of a five-figure bill coming in the mail.
Will New Hampshire authorities charge Mr. Clark for his rescue? It sounds like they might. But should they? I’d hate to think they’ll be pulling more bodies off Mount Washington because financial considerations won out when a call for help should have been made.