Search and Rescue and charging for itPosted: March 31, 2009
Every year skiers, hikers, and hunters become lost while running around in the backcountry. Some are experts who temporarily find themselves in area they did not expect. Others are tourists who have no idea of the dangers of their actions and venture out to become victims. It is this last group who generates dollars and press time as helicopters circle the last known sighting and satellite trucks keep the couch sitters informed in the warm homes. In the winter the problems and entertainment value are magnified.
At the same time the agency responsible for the search and rescue, (SAR) after either a particular costly SAR or a particularly stupid one, informs the public that they are going to charge for SAR costs.
In Vermont, SAR is directed by the State Police. The State Police has announced they “may” start charging for SAR costs in the future. They will charge for skiers that are lost after skiing out of bounds. Vermont law specifically allows for agencies and others to charge for SAR costs when a person skis off the designated trails at a ski area. 12 V.S.A. § 1038(c) states:
§ 1038. Skiing off designated ski trails; collision; duty to report; recovery for rescue expenses
(c) Civil action to recover.—A person who uses the facilities of a ski area to access terrain outside the open and designated ski trails, shall be liable in a civil action brought by any person, including a ski area, rescue organization, municipality or the state, to recover expenses incurred to provide rescue, medical or other services to such person for circumstances or injuries which resulted from such use. The entity seeking to recover may also recover reasonable attorney fees and court costs. No ski area, its owners, agents or employees, individual or entity, municipal or otherwise, shall be held liable for any acts or omissions taken in the course of such rescue operations unless such act or omission constitutes gross negligence.
Not only can the state charge, but also the ski area, a rescue organization, or a municipality to recover all of the expenses in addition to reasonable attorney fees and court costs. Most states the sheriff is in charge of SAR and the sheriff is the only entity that can charge, if at all. The penalty for not paying for those rescue costs can add up in Vermont also. It appears that some ski areas do charge for any SAR they may undertake. As stated in the article that brought this news to our attention, one resort collects a credit card number from the rescued people. However testimony when the bill before the Vermont Legislature last year showed only a 20 to 30% recover rate.
At the same time, there is a hesitancy and fear to collect from the rescued because it may prevent people who truly need to be rescued from calling for help. The idea is either the person will not call and die, or not call and get into more trouble requiring a more difficult rescue. No one seems to have real evidence of this fact and it is probably impossible to determine, but for most states this is enough of a possibility to not charge for SAR or at least continue the discussion.
The real cost is not money. In Alison Osius’s book Second Ascent she writes about a rescuer dieing in an attempt to rescue the subject of her book Hugh Herr. Nothing more tragic can occur in the lives of the rescuer and the rescued. Yet each time volunteers and employees put on the winter clothes and a radio, everyone understands that can happen.
The real reason behind the threat to collect for expenses is to prevent people from doing stupid things. However stupid for one group of people is great adventure the next. Nor has a fine or threat of monetary penalty or cost every stopped anyone from doing anything let alone anything stupid. (If you don’t buy this, next time you are on the freeway see if you are being passed as you exceed the speed limit.)
In just one week five people were missing, one dead in an out of bounds avalanche in Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Utah is famous for the out of bounds skiing and to some extent encourages it. Our industry supports magazines that are based on the theory that “earning your turns” by hiking up hill and skiing ungroomed snow is the best way to ski. And it is. However any time you venture out of the controlled (ski patrol avalanche team scoured resort) you increase your chances of becoming lost or dieing.
The problem is, tourons (combination of tourist and moron) skiing out of bounds. If an expert skis abound they are prepared: avalanche transceiver, shovel, Black Diamond™ Avalung II and training, it is a fun time for the expert who was caught in a freak act of nature. If a tourist does it, they are idiots going where they should not go without the proper training, equipment or knowledge putting locals at risk.
However how many of us are willing to stand up and say I am a tourist or even a touron? Two magazines say out of bounds skiing is ok. Sitting in a bar you hear the locals talk about it. For the tourist who can run a mile in ten minutes where they live (altitude 685 feet) and known as an expert skier, why not? (Or as we call a friend, the “King of Wisp.”)
Then someone has to make a decision. Was the rescue a disaster such that we need to charge for it? What criteria are used to identify a reckless endeavor? What variables influence the decision: locals versus tourists, trained versus untrained, the cost versus the risk or the attitude of the rescued when they are finally found?
That decision process alone then provides a possible defense to collecting for the SAR costs. Court time and legal costs mount as the fine line for collecting for the rescue is argued and debated.
And will the collection of costs for rescuing lost reckless people decrease the number of rescues made each year? Doubtful. No study conclusively proves that any measure no matter how costly or draconian changes human behavior. For proof, look at your own driving record or the local prison.
The Vermont statute 12 V.S.A. § 1038(c) also has a little hook in it protecting the rescuers from a lawsuit unless they are grossly negligent. That little threat alone would be enough to keep a lot of SAR help sitting at home watching TV. If I am willing to walk around during a frigid snowy night looking for a lost skier, no matter what I do, short of strangling the person when I find them, I should not be sued.
It is not going to get better. Until everyone at a resort or in some states, state wide wears a GPS locator the risk and cost of SAR will exists. In fact it will probably get worse. As the ability to communicate with rescue organizations increases, the chances people take will also increase. Grand Canyon river companies no longer tell passengers they carry satellite phones. They saw an increase in the “stupid human tricks” and resulting accidents when customers knew that rescue was a phone call away.
Should you be charge for SAR, Yes, on a case by case basis. I have come out of the woods a day late, once because I did not want to come back to the “real world” and once because equipment issues slowed me down. I did not want or need rescued. However if I am lost in the jungles of Brazil or Peru, someplace I have not received a lot of experience doing in Colorado, it might be a different story. Plan your trip and the person who is going to notify rescuers accordingly.
The season is just beginning for summer SAR. I hope no rescuer is injured or dies in an attempt to save another. I hope all lost people are rescued and returned to their loved ones. I hope the tourons read these articles and reflect just for a second before placing someone else at risk. It’s ok if you want to push the limits, just don’t take anyone with you. I hope that each time a SAR team goes out the have the best and all of the equipment they need, and I hope it comes out of the pockets of the last person they rescued.