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PAYING THE PRICE FOR RESCUE
Agencies can charge reckless adventurers, but usually don't
By Jason Eck and Deanne Darr
When a Redmond man became stranded while trying to rappel into the steep Crooked River Gorge in the middle of a cold winter night three years ago, rescuers spent about four hours lowering him to safety.
Not only was the man unprepared, inappropriately dressed and packing only 250 feet of rope to reach the bottom of the 365-foot cliff, but authorities suspected he had also been drinking. The man jammed the descent ring on his rappelling gear and was left hanging about 100 feet from the canyon floor for about seven hours until rescuers could lower him to safety.
Search and rescue crews from Jefferson and Deschutes counties eased the man from his precarious position and slapped him with a charge of disorderly conduct.
But should he also have footed a portion of the bill for the cost of the rescue for disregard for his own safety and the danger he created for rescuers?
This case and many like it are times agencies could consider charging rescue subjects for a small portion of their services. A 4-year-old Oregon law gives search agencies the authority to charge subjects of search and rescues up to $500 a piece when "reasonable care" was not used and when "applicable laws were violated."
But in the vast majority of cases, the agencies do not send a bill.
The question of whether to send a bill to subjects of search and rescue missions when plain ignorance is displayed, when a lack of care is tossed out the window or when laws are broken is not as easy as it might seem.
Search and rescue officials maintain that regularly charging for their services would cause people to hesitate to call for help out of worry of being billed. Searchers fear such a delay would cause people to get themselves even deeper into life-threatening situations and make rescues more difficult and dangerous for crews.
But officials say the .reimbursement law is a tool they will begin use in appropriate cases to recover lost taxpayer dollars and send a message to persons who place search and rescue personnel, themselves and others in danger.
While rescue units have a high sympathy threshold for the lost and unlucky, they are sometimes irked by the cases they encounter. A few examples:
• A search for three hikers caught in a snowstorm on Mount Hood cost taxpayers about $10,000 in March 1995. More than 100 people searched for the three college students, who in fact were well-equipped, warm and safe. The three waited the storm out in their tent playing cards. The hikers were not carrying a cellular-phone or radio locator unit. The incident prompted the 1995 reimbursement legislation.
• Local search crews responded to a call several years ago for a rockhound who was reported missing in the Horse Ridge area. Rescuers mobilized and a search was activated. Crews found out they were searching in vain - the man had not gone rock hunting, and in fact was not even in the state.
• In 1993 two adults drowned and three children were rescued after going over Dillon Falls on the Deschutes River near Bend. The inexperienced rafters went over the falls, rated as nearly impossible to navigate, despite a sign that warned of the danger ahead.
None of those cases resulted in a billing.
But in May 1996, Deschutes County became the first search and rescue agency to use Oregon's reimbursement law.
Rescuers spent two hours fishing two of five Portland-area men out of the rapids of Benham Falls on the Deschutes River. The party attempted to ride a class VI rapid despite warnings from bystanders and signs.
The men shared a $1,560 bill for the cost of the rescue.
Some experts agree with Oregon's law in principle, but say it is impractical to administer.
Georges Kleinbaum, state search and rescue coordinator with the Oregon State Police division of emergency management, says the reimbursement law was rushed into the Legislature in response to the 1995 search and rescue mission on Mount Hood and not supported by Oregon sheriffs.
"They were on the right track with wanting to be able to charge people, but I think the whole thing needed a little more work before they chiseled it in stone," said Terry Silbaugh, former coordinator of Deschutes County's unit.
Policies vary among public agencies routinely involved in search and rescue missions.
J.D. Swed, a representative of the National Association for Search and Rescue, said most states have some type of mechanism in place to seek recovery of .funds for missions where negligence or lack of care is shown.
For instance, in California agencies can seek up to $10,000 in a civil lawsuit for costs associated with search and, rescue. However, in such a case the search and rescue agency must prove "gross negligence," which is hard to do and has not been tested in court, according to Bill Fertig, a corporal with. the San Bernardino County Sheriffs Department volunteer. services unit.
Swed, who is in charge of all search and rescue operations in Denali National Park in. Alaska, said National Park Service search and rescues all are funded by tax dollars. There is no provision to charge people,. although park service authorities do occasionally cite persons for disorderly conduct.
Other agencies' policies:
The U.S. Coast Guard goes after search and rescue costs when it receives "hoax calls" that result in a full-scale response, said Shelly Freier, a U.S. Coast Guard public relations spokeswoman. Such cases' could include a phony Mayday call or when flairs are launched for no emergency purpose.
• The U.S. Forest Service can only charge for damage done to government property, and not for any costs associated with rescue.
• Fire departments can, by state statute, recover. costs other than patient care, such as personnel time and equipment, in cases of blatant disregard.
• Ski areas, such as Mount Bachelor, don't mess around when it comes to skiers and snowboarders who explore ungroomed snow. Kathy Degree, vice president of marketing at Mount Bachelor, said they charge a minimum of $1,000 an hour for each search, whether that search lasts an hour or 24 hours.
One non-governmental agency, Air Life of Oregon, bills non members for rescue services. The nonprofit organization, which provides air ambulance service to a 70,000 square mile area in Central and Eastern Oregon, is expensive if patients are not enrolled members.
Patients are only charged if they are actually transported..
The typical Air Life mission costs in excess of $5,000. Two airplanes and a helicopter are available to respond to the "worst of the worst," said Vern Bartley, Air Life of Oregon director.
Annual memberships at $45. for a family can ensure that Air Life and insurance providers will pick up the, bulk of the bill. About 20 percent of the calls Air Life responds involve enrolled members.
Search and rescue missions are not cheap, often stretching into the thousands of dollars. The major costs are calculated in staff time and equipment. those are actual costs that Oregon search and rescue agencies can seek.
What can't be recovered are the many hours logged by dedicated volunteers who are the life and blood of search and rescue agencies.
Deschutes County Sheriffs Search and Rescue, the state's busiest, has only three full-time staff members. Volunteers do most of the work, and can be called on at any time, in any season, to perform under sometimes life-threatening conditions.
"The key here is, why can't we charge for the volunteers?" said Silbaugh. "Then it would be worth going after."
Deschutes County officials often are asked by the public why they don't charge more frequently for search and rescue missions.
Coordinator Wayne Inman said attempting to recover for less costly search and rescues missions can sometimes exceed out-of-pocket costs and must be considered in seeking reimbursement. When it makes sense to charge, Inman said he won't delay in bringing the case before the sheriff, whose ultimate decision it is to send a bill.
"When there is an unjustified expenditure of public money for search and rescue, the public expects us to ask for reimbursement," Inman said. "We're really stewards of public funds and have a responsibility to ensure they're spent wisely."
Search and rescue volunteers and outdoor enthusiasts have mixed feelings about charging for the service.
Bill Good, a retired Los Angeles police officer and five year volunteer with Deschutes County, sees the benefit of the reimbursement law.
"There are times when people show disregard and you think, `Sock it to them,' " Good said. "It's kind of discouraging at times when people show disregard in the wilderness, where if they would have. shown a little common sense they wouldn't have gotten into trouble out there."
Robert Speik, mountaineering instructor at Central Oregon Community College and member of the Cascades Mountaineers, is a former search and rescue volunteer in Deschutes County. He believes the issue of charging comes down to "whether someone was foolish or adventurous." It's acceptable to charge "where people did something stupid or defied authorities," Speik; said. "It's not acceptable where people got stuck on a grand adventure and have the skills to save themselves, but because of objective dangers, they can't."
Peggy Spieger, Oregon State Snowmobile Association administrative coordinator, said the association generally does not endorse charging for search and rescue.
"It is a public service provided by trained and dedicated people. The only exception would be a situation involving flagrant disregard for one's safety, the safety of others, or-violations of state and federal laws and regulations, Spieger said. She also fears people forming their own group of rescuers without proper training and qualifications could result in more problems for search and rescue.
Kent Howes, promotions coordinator for Mountain Supply of Oregon; said search and rescue workers "have a lot of compassion for people out there" and that by charging, search and rescue agencies "somehow cross an imaginary line."
People who are active in the outdoors need to know their own abilities and experience level, Howes said.
Rob Uetrecht, co-chair of the Cascades Mountaineers, agrees. "As an individual, you have to take responsibility for yourself. We can't rely on search and rescue to bail us out. There's not a failsafe in anything we do," he said. "A lot of outdoorsmen feel this way."
--Eck is The Bulletin's public safety reporter. Darr covers outdoor recreation
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