The Cost of Getting Lost

Flagstaff, AZ – Early last month the Coconino County Sheriff's Office, with the help of several other agencies, rescued 40 people stranded in the snow. It was a multi-thousand-dollar operation. But it cost the victims nothing. In northern Arizona most rescues are free but some believe unprepared outdoor enthusiasts should have to pay for their rescues. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has this story.

In the days leading up to the big blizzard last month Coconino County Search and Rescue Coordinator Sergeant Aaron Dick looked at the weather forecast and his calendar and his heart skipped a beat. He realized northern Arizona anticipated a huge snow storm at the same time of a large elk hunt.

DICK: We checked with Arizona Game and Fish and there were over 3,000 tags issued for those areas. We knew we had a lot of people in the forest so the combination of this open hunt and this unusually heavy snow fall -- I think it was the 8th snowiest day in Flagstaff.

Over the course of the next few days Search and Rescue, several agencies and dozens of volunteers used snowcats, helicopters and snowmobiles to locate and pull hunters out of the snow.

In terms of manpower and resources it cost the agencies more than 35-thousand dollars. But not a dime was charged to the victims. Dick says the sheriff's office is opposed to charging.

DICK: If somebody has a fear of a bill for search and rescue they may delay in reporting the emergency. That can then further endanger them plus it can make it more dangerous for our rescuers.

The costs of manpower and operating all of the equipment can be steep so many agencies rely heavily on volunteers.

DICK: We call them volunteers but they're really unpaid professionals. They go through a lot of training and they are very dedicated. They put in on average 4,000 hours on SAR missions about 3,000 hours in training to prepare for those missions.

SFX: cross fade snowmobile

Recently Dick held a winter training for search and rescue volunteers. They learned how to snowmobile, snowshoe and drive a snowcat.

GILL: So when I go to put it in park you have two levers to steer with

Long time volunteer Dennis Gill shows a group how to operate the snowcat, a large orange tank with special tracks. Gill says it costs a lot of money to purchase and maintain search and rescue equipment.

GILL: I think in some cases people should have to pay if they do something that's outrageously stupid. Some people get in trouble because they happen to be in the wrong place. Some people go out and find their trouble.

Gill and other rescuers say cell phones and new devices called personal locators can give hikers and hunters a false sense of security. Ken Phillips is chief of emergency services at Grand Canyon National Park. In the dozen or so times hikers have pushed the panic button on a personal locator over the past three years, only two were actual emergencies.

PHILLIPS: These devices are typically one way information. We only receive that an alert has occurred and respond to it. Many are considered false alarms or people not really in distress.

Grand Canyon performed more than 300 search and rescue operations last year. It costs the park about a half a million dollars a year.

The National Park Service does not charge for rescues if they are using their own equipment. But if a commercial helicopter has to respond it may charge as much as 15-thousand dollars.

Phillips says even though some of the operations are frustrating, especially when his personnel are put in hazardous situations, he doesn't want to have to decide who should pay.

PHILLIPS: Anyone of us can have an accident. It puts rescuers in a precarious situation of having to determine who was negligent and who wasn't. Quite honestly that's a job for the courts.

The no-pay policy is the norm across the nation. There are few states whose laws authorize agencies to fine subjects of search and rescue operations. In the vast majority of cases agencies only fine people who have broken a law. For example, a skier or snowboarder who ducks under a rope without a back country permit, causes an avalanche and requires rescue can be fined. And that's happened on the San Francisco Peaks.

Art Pundt has been involved in some of those rescues. Pundt is an experienced mountaineer, back country skier and search and rescue volunteer.

PUNDT: Some people would say it's our tax money we need to rescue them then we need to charge them. Phoenix has the stupid motorists law for example. The thing we have here is within a few hours you can go from a nice 70-75 degree day from a desert environment and you can immediately go up to an alpine environment. It's a big shift in thinking.

That shift requires preparation, first aid training, extra food and water, but also a willingness to postpone a trip if weather conditions aren't ideal.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.