Who pays for rescue efforts when people are lost? Who should?

A few days ago, Kraig wrote about the three hikers lost on Mt. Hood. At the time of his post, one of the hikers had been found dead. The other two were still missing. Almost a week after they set out on their climb, they are still missing and most probably are dead. Because of this tragic situation, the question of who foots the bill for rescue efforts has come up once more.

Back in 2005, then Gadling blogger Erik Olsen wrestled with the question about who should pay–the lost hiker who hopefully is found–or tax payers? Olsen’s musings came about after a hiker hurt his ankle while hiking in Colorado. Several fire departments rescued the hiker after he spent a night on the mountain. The sticker price for the rescue was $5,000. In this case, the fire departments wanted the hiker to pay.

Usually, the people who are getting rescued don’t pay anything. But is that fair? Rescue attempts can be pricey. Consider this: From 1992 to 2007, the U.S. National Park Service spent $58 million on search and rescue efforts.

This recent Newsweek article echoes some of Erik’s points. As the article highlights, the hard economics question of who should pay for rescue attempts has as many facets to consider as it always has.

While one might say that people who take risks by heading up a mountain top or straying off a path should pay up once he or she is found, there are other factors to keep in mind.

  • One is a concern that people may avoid calling for help until it’s too late out of fear for what a rescue attempt might cost.
  • Some risks are unknown. A beautiful sunny day could go sour if the wind shifts, for example. Should people be punished when nature is at fault?
  • A large portion of rescue attempts are made by volunteers, therefore the cost is curtailed.
  • When fire departments and military units are part of rescue efforts, they often have hours to log towards rescues. A real live rescue helps them meet their quota.
  • Sometimes a rescue attempt may be launched even though the hiker is not in danger. A seasoned hiker may be holed up somewhere waiting for more favorable hiking conditions while a family member is frantic with worry.

With the knowledge that lost hikers are part of the outdoor scene, being financially proactive seems to be the best approach for handling costs before they occur. Colorado, for example, collects a small portion of the money from state recreational fees to put into a fund that is earmarked for search and rescue.

In Alaska, people who are mountain climbing up Mount McKinley pay $200 for the privilege.

Although planning for a tragic situation is never pleasant, it seems that in this case, planning ahead for the ” just in case” is sound. Otherwise, at the worst possible moment, people will be faced with the question, “How much is a life worth?

Two climbers missing, one dead on Mt. Hood

It was a long and tragic weekend on Oregon’s Mt. Hood, where search and rescue teams combed the area searching for three missing climbers. That search turned tragic on Saturday when one of the climbers was found dead high on the mountain, while his two companions remain missing as of this writing.

On Friday, 26-year old Luke T. Gullberg, Kattie Nolan, 29, and Anthony Vietti, 24, set off to climb the 11,249 foot Mt. Hood, which is a popular mountaineering destination in all seasons, although obviously more challenging in the winter months, when deep snow and unpredictable weather can cause all kinds of problems. The three climbers were due back at 2 PM that afternoon, but when they didn’t arrive by Saturday, the search teams went into action.

Gulberg’s body was discovered on the Reid Glacier at about 9000 feet, along with some climbing gear, but no trace of Nolan or Vietti was discovered. The recovery team said they found a digital camera in Gulberg’s pack, which gave clues to the location of the missing climbers, but due to bad weather, heavy snow, and avalanche conditions, finding them won’t be an easy task. That task will be made all the more difficult by an incomplete climbing registration form and conflicting reports on the route they were taking to the summit.

The search is expected to continue today, with a National Guard and Coast Guard helicopter reporting to the area. The Coast Guard aircraft comes equipped with thermal imaging that should prove helpful to SAR teams, despite the adverse weather conditions. Search teams remain hopeful that Nolan and Vietti will still be found alive.

Nevada hopes adventurer Fossett’s wife pays for the search efforts

When a person goes missing in the wilderness and people try to find them, it’s not cheap. In Steve Fossett’s case, the price tag was $687,000. In Nevada, the state where multimillionaire Fossett disappeared, people don’t have to pay the cost of the search parties who are look for them.

If you get stuck on a mountain somewhere without a dime in your bank account, you don’t have to worry that you’re too poor to find. In Fossett’s case, having oodles of money didn’t matter either. He wasn’t found. Still, since his wife has all that money, Nevada is hoping that his estate will help cover more of the costs. $200,000 was paid early on. The family isn’t obligated, it just would be nice. With state budget crunches and shortfalls, some extra cash would come in handy the governor’s thinking. [see AP article]

I’m thinking, there is a bit of a dilemma. When people take off in the wilderness,or head off in a small plane that might go down in a hard to find place, there is risk involved and bad things do happen. Being found is a costly undertaking. People who don’t take such risks are then paying for those who do. However, leaving someone out there is not an option, unless it can’t be helped because the person is just too lost. I can see how some might be miffed that a rich guy gets lost because he was a risk taker and thus, put even more of a strain on a state’s strained budget, but how do we put a dollar amount on human life? There’s something in us that wants lost people to be found. Perhaps its primal–as in, if I’m lost, please come get me mentality.

We all want someone watching our back when we set off into the wild. Metaphorically speaking, isn’t the wild a symbol for life? It’s just that the line between safety, adventure and a dollar sign is not so clear.