Funding Search and Rescues -- Who Gets the Bill?

Funding Search and Rescues -- Who Gets the Bill?

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Heroic? Definitely. Cheap? No. Search and rescue in Utah's wilderness is expensive, and bills sent to once-missing outdoor enthusiasts after they're found in the majestic redrock settings of eastern Utah's Grand County are usually ignored.

Now Grand County is getting tougher, with an ordinance allowing the county to turn over unpaid bills to collection agencies. Officials hope with the change to recover 80 percent or more of the costs associated with rescues.

Before, the county's bills largely went unpaid because the county couldn't enforce the bills.

Other Utah counties are considering similar laws to recoup their costs, which in Grand County's case, start at a minimum of $245 just to get rescuers out the door.

"We had to do something," said Grand County sheriff's Sgt. Kent Green.

But some worry about ethical problems associated with forced collections, saying it might cause some people to keep aimlessly wandering in the wilderness instead of calling -- and paying -- for their rescue.

"There's too much passion the opposite way in the search and rescue community for me to believe there is a legitimate reason for charging each individual victim for their search," said Jacki Golike, executive director for National Association of Search and Rescue. "It's too easy to say 'just charge the victim' and that doesn't solve any problems at all."

There was a time that Grand County, whose 8,500 residents include the city of Moab, averaged only nine search and rescue missions yearly. That was 20 years ago.

Now, with tourism doubled, the county has at least 80 search and rescue missions each year, with a high of 120. Recently, two wayward ATV riders marked the county's 42nd rescue of 2004.

"We say they leave their brains at home sometimes," said Kelly McGettingen, assistant manager with outfitter Moab Adventure Center, which offers its rafting clients a $15 evacuation insurance to cover search and rescue costs. Its hiking, biking and off-road trips are normally small groups, so the guides can keep an eye on them, she said.

But because many enthusiasts eschew experienced guides and go it alone, they occasionally find themselves stranded in the night's dropping temperatures, stuck in a tight crevasse, on a cliff, or in a rushing-water canyon, injured, bewildered, and dehydrated.

Getting those folks to safety is an obligation, rescuers say, but it's pricey.

State Sen. John Valentine, a Republican from Orem who also is a lieutenant for Utah County Search and Rescue, sponsored a bill in 1997 that created the Search and Rescue Financial Assistance Program. The fund reimburses Utah counties for some of the search and rescue costs.

In fiscal year 2003, counties received more than $153,000, a small fraction of their expenses. The program's advisory board is exploring other ways to boost the fund, such as a surcharge on vehicle registrations.

Grand County isn't the first nationwide to bill for search and rescues. Several states, including Idaho, Hawaii and New Hampshire, allow counties to bill for the operations. Some ski resorts in Oregon, Washington and Colorado have also independently charged skiers for their rescues if they've ventured out of bounds. Utah lets individual counties decide.

The National Park Service, which operates five national parks in Utah, in 2003 spent more than a third of its $3 million rescue costs in the Intermountain region, which includes the Rocky Mountain states. The Park Service does not bill for rescues, but has considered it.

Such laws have drawn anger from critics who view rescue operations as a tax-funded service. Golike's organization believes search and rescue is a public service similar to firefighting.

"It's almost an entitlement," she said.

Green, the Grand County sheriff's sergeant, said sending a rescue bill to a family who lost a loved one is a "big gray area" that makes him uncomfortable, "even though it has been done."

Green recalled an expensive search for a 13-year-old boy several years ago that used fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters from dawn to dusk, all-terrain vehicles and at least 50 volunteers. The effort ended four days later when searchers found the boy's body.

The cost went into the tens of thousands.

"They paid as much as they could," Green said of the family.

It's not unusual for the stranded or imperiled to ask rescuers how much their rescue might cost.

Last summer, a couple whose boat tipped over on a Utah County lake gave rescuers permission to pluck them out of the water only after finding out the county wouldn't send a bill.

"That's the first thing he asked the rescuer, 'How much is this going to cost me,"' said Utah County sheriff's Sgt. Tom Hodgson.

That's exactly why charging for search and rescues is risky, said Golike: "If you tell them there's a charge, they're going to delay."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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