The vast majority of people who must be rescued from a wilderness or mountain top never intended to find themselves in that position. Sometimes their predicament was the result of unforeseeable circumstances; at other times their situation may have been caused or at least aggravated by poor decisions or a lack of preparation for their outing.
Regardless of the circumstances, no one questions whatever efforts are needed to mount a rescue and save a human life. But those efforts often are costly, and when the rescue is over, who pays the bill?
Officials in New Hampshire currently are in negotiations with an 18-year-old Eagle Scout who was rescued from the region’s highest peak, Mount Washington. The teen sprained his ankle then became lost while seeking a shortcut. Although he managed to survive for three nights on the mountain before he was rescued, state officials said he was negligent because he didn’t prepare properly for his climb and didn’t make reasonable decisions when he found himself in trouble.
The teen had made a $1,000 donation to his rescuers, but was shocked to get a $25,000 bill to cover the cost of the rescue including the use of a helicopter. It was believed to be the largest bill issued since a New Hampshire law was passed nine years ago allowing rescuers to recoup their costs.
On one hand, $25,000 seems like little enough to pay for your life, but it’s an expensive lesson for a teenager who made some bad decisions. There also are questions about how such a law could be consistently enforced. Who gets to decide whether the rescued person did what a “reasonable person” would do in the same situation?
Members of rescue crews often are volunteers who do this work for all the right reasons. The National Association for Search and Rescue and other similar groups strongly oppose charging for rescues because they don’t want anyone not to seek assistance because they fear they might not be able to pay the bill.
Nonetheless, when expenses are incurred, someone must pay.
Colorado may have the right idea in the form of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card. Colorado residents or visitors can buy a card for $3 a year or $12 for five years. Two-thirds of the revenue from card sales — along with surcharges on hunting and fishing licenses and boat, snowmobile and ATV registrations — goes into a search and rescue fund that reimburses rescue teams and helps pay for training and equipment. It’s a voluntary program, but it seems like little enough to pay to support such lifesaving backup.
Hopefully, the New Hampshire teen and his rescuers will come to a fair resolution of their dispute. If someone is in trouble because he or she did something truly negligent or illegal, some kind of fine may be in order, but charging directly for rescues just doesn’t seem like the humanitarian way to handle the situation.