Search and Rescue and Pay

Posted Aug. 11, 2009, at 6:43 p.m.

The idea of charging people for being rescued in the woods seems to be gaining popularity. New Hampshire officials are negotiating with the family of an Eagle Scout who was charged $25,000 for his rescue in the White Mountains this year. In Piscataquis County, a commissioner wants to pass a $2,500 bill on to the family of a girl who had an allergic reaction to a bee sting last month.

While back-country users seems to be a popular target, the fee for rescue movement raises important questions about all emergency services and who should pay for them. Answering these questions is especially important as government at all levels is squeezed financially and looking for ways to cut — or pass along — costs.

In the Maine case, a 15-year-old was stung by at least one bee in the Gulf Hagas area. She immediately broke out in hives, began fading in and out of consciousness and was unable to walk. Her hiking companions gave her Benadryl and an injection of epinephrine, which should mute arguments of negligence. When that didn’t relieve the symptoms, she was given more Benadryl and some of her companions went for help. Game wardens and Milo and Brownville fire department rescuers carried the girl to an ambulance at a parking lot near Katahdin Iron Works.

The Milo Fire Department sent a $2,514 bill for the girl’s rescue to Piscataquis County commissioners. Commissioner Tom Lizotte said the bill should go to the girl’s family. It is unclear how much the entire rescue operation cost and how the other agencies involved planned to cover the costs.

This follows a 2006 decision by the commissioners to no longer reimburse local fire departments for assisting in searches and rescues in the Unorganized Territory. The Gulf Hagas rescue was in the UT.

At that time, commissioners said that search and rescue is the responsibility of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and that agency should cover the costs. In the past, DIF&W has sent bills to people rescued in situations that suggested poor judgment but, perhaps because there are no legal standards about when such reimbursements are required, they have not been paid.

Using the same logic, people who smoke in bed should be charged for the fire department’s work to put out the fire they started. Boaters should be charged for capsizing their craft and not wearing life jackets, requiring wardens to pull them to safety. Distracted drivers should be charged for the time police spend handling and reconstructing the accidents they cause.

Sorting negligence from just plain bad luck is difficult, which could be why emergency services have long been considering a common good, paid for by all through their taxes.

Search-and-rescue operations are a public service and should be paid for by the general public, as are fire and police protection.

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