Incidents renew debate on who should pay for rescues

Among search-and-rescue personnel and park leadership, there is no desire to charge people who need to be rescued. Those are services, they argue, that should be provided without expense.

The debate has been renewed by a series of searches this winter at Mount Rainier National Park.

The National Park Service’s current stance is not to charge visitors for search-and-rescue costs, said Randy King, park superintendent. Part of the Park Service’s mission is to provide the public the opportunity to enjoy the natural lands protected by the parks.

“We’re very much a public service organization,” King said. “Part of that is providing help when it is needed.”

That’s not to say rescue efforts are inexpensive, but King feels it’s an expenditure as necessary as paying rangers to lead a summer guided hike at Sunrise.

In 2010, the last year for which full details are available, the park spent $192,749.45 for 42 search-and-rescue efforts throughout the park. It spent an estimated $141,000 for 33 incidents in 2011.

The cost for the individual events in 2010 ranged from $44,620.03 for a two-day, high-mountain search for a Duvall man who was never found after he unclipped himself from the climbing rope connecting him to two fellow climbers, to $8.50 to help a group of climbers lost in the dark, snow and fog descending from Camp Muir.

The average cost of an incident at the park is $2,000-$4,000, said Stefan Lofgren, Mount Rainier’s lead climbing ranger.

The costs climb as searches extend to multiple days, when scores of volunteers need to be fed and housed, and when helicopters are used.

While the park receives free aerial assistance from the military and agencies such as the Washington State Patrol, the park sometimes requires a helicopter from a private company to assist. That cost is about $1,500 an hour with a minimum of three hours, said chief ranger Chuck Young.

The park also relies on the 214th General Support Aviation Brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord to supply CH-47 Chinook helicopters for high-altitude searches and rescues. But the military does not charge the park because it considers such calls part of its mission and also uses them as training opportunities.

“We are eternally grateful to the military,” Young said. “Whenever they have been available, they have been ready to help us out.”

Other agencies and volunteer groups assisting in search and rescues do not bill the park, although the park sometimes provides them food and lodging in the park during the incidents.

The park does sometimes pay individuals, often summer employees available to assist, who help in search and rescues. Individuals who are part of volunteer organizations are not paid by the park.

Park officials also point out that not every dollar comes out of the park’s annual operating budget of approximately $11 million. The park covers programmed costs, such as the salaries for park rescue personnel. Of the unprogrammed costs – such as food and lodging for rescuers and volunteers, gear, paying contract helicopters and other unexpected expenses – the park pays only the first $500 for each incident. Beyond that, the costs are paid from a National Park Service contingency fund.

The Park Service does that, King said, because it is difficult for a park to predict how much it will need each year for searches.

Thus, in 2010, the park paid almost $48,500 for searches and rescues, 25.1 percent of the total cost.

Still, some argue, those are public dollars being spent for people who need to be rescued.

Lofgren counters that those services are the same as provided by local fire departments.

“The fire department has people standing by waiting to help,” Lofgren said. “They don’t charge you when your house burns down. You don’t have to post a bond because your house might burn down.”

Lofgren’s analogy can be countered with the argument that people are charged for ambulance rides. However, while each fire department has the authority to set its own guidelines, departments typically don’t charge individuals (although they may bill the insurance company) for transportation in their medic units. However, those transported by a private ambulance company are more likely to be billed.

The park has two ambulances and does not charge for their use.

“As rangers up here, this is what we are trained for,” Lofgren said. “It wouldn’t be consistent with other emergency response if we charged.”

In many cases at the mountain, Young added, people are accidentally hurt and need assistance, much like someone falling off a roof at home.

“The vast majority of folks that come up that get lost or injured, they’re not going up there with the intent of being negligent or reckless,” the chief ranger said. “They might not be as prepared as they should have been, but they’re going up to have a good time.”

Lofgren says most searches and rescues are inexpensive. In fact, many that occur within regular shifts cost almost nothing, he said. In 2010, there were 10 incidents that cost the park $100 or less for staff time.

His view, he admits, is rather pragmatic.

“People should be able to go out there and experience that risk. That’s what makes the wilderness the wilderness,” Lofgren said.

Judson Lang is another person who balks at talk of charging for rescues. He has been teaching an Olympia Mountaineers course on winter travel for the last 17 years.

“Just to make these blanket assumptions – ‘They’re crazy, they shouldn’t be doing that’ – is just crazy,” he said. “We have more people dying on the highways, but you don’t see them outlawing cars.”

He compared a search to going to the beach to swim and getting a leg cramp.

“Is that consequence your own, or do you expect a lifeguard to come help?” he said.

Still, there are some attempts to collect money from people who need rescuing.

After three climbers died in a prolonged storm on Mount Hood in 2006, Oregon’s then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski created a task force to review search-and-rescue practices. Among the many topics it explored was the idea of seeking reimbursement for search-and-rescue costs.

In Oregon, state law permits public agencies to collect no more than $500 as reimbursement for backcountry searches and rescues, but county sheriffs “generally do not seek reimbursement,” according to the report.

“The sheriffs and their SAR coordinators seek to encourage early reporting of missing persons,” the report said. “The call for assistance may be delayed if a person in need of rescue services believes that they may be subject to any penalty.”

Tacoma Mountain Rescue Unit president Mark Cooksley agrees with this assessment.

“Our stance has been and will continue to be that people should not pay for rescues,” Cooksley said. “Not because we don’t have a problem with people generating high dollar rescues, ... but our big concern with starting to charge people, and it is a very valid concern, that people will be less likely to call when they believe they’ll have to pay.

“If they wait too long to call, that can be the difference between life and death.”

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.com

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 craig.hill@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure


On July 7, 2011, Mount Rainier Guest Services employee Steve Haley left on a day hike. The 65-year-old planned to do a loop along the Wonderland Trail to Rampart Ridge and then down the Comet Falls Trail.

Near Comet Falls, Haley lost his way in heavy snow, fell and slid about 300 feet down a steep snow slope, ending up in a tree well with an injured leg.

Haley was reported missing about 10:40 a.m. on July 8 by his employer after he failed to show up for work.

Over the next two days, the park employed ground, canine and helicopter units to search for Haley. The search involved 10 ground teams totaling 45 people.

Haley was lifted off the mountain by a Chinook helicopter from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and then taken by ambulance to St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, where he was treated.

All told, the search and rescue cost $44,067, according to data from Mount Rainier National Park. That includes $5,931 for on-duty ranger salaries, $22,379 for overtime and unscheduled pay for rangers, $8,762 for a contract helicopter and $6,995 for equipment costs. The park itself paid $6,425, while the rest was paid from a National Park Service contingency fund. The park was not charged for the 11/2 hours a military helicopter was used, nor the cost of the ambulance.

The equipment cost varies by search, said Stefan Lofgren, the park’s lead climbing ranger. It could be replacing perishable items, such as Gatorade or a frayed rope. It also includes purchasing additional items, such as more GPS units, replacing oxygen bottles and body bags. If lodging is needed for volunteers, that cost – about $10 per night per person – is included in this category.

Jeffrey P. Mayor, jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.com