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Paying for Wilderness Search and Rescue: Private Cost, or Public Obligation?

With some pontificating, and a few thoughts about rescue insurance

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From New Hampshire comes the announcement that the state legislature is planning to change the wording in their search and rescue (SAR) mandate language to allow searchers to bill victims for ‘negligent’ behavior (rather than the current standard of ‘reckless’). Victim’s driver’s licenses can even be revoked for unpaid bills.

In theory anyway, this will make it easier to recover rescue expenses in cases where human carelessness contributed significantly to the emergency. But is it a good idea, or just populist pulpit-thumping?

Every time there’s a high profile rescue like the televised episodes on Mt. Hood, there’s always plenty of pundit thundering about irresponsible adventurers, and internet message boards resound with accusations of‘stupid urbanites’.

But society rescues people all the time–Auto accident victims, home fire victims, mumbling homeless people, war refugees, plane crashes, hunters, illegal immigrants, single mothers, old folks, the jobless, drunk local bubbahs – and at far greater cost than wilderness hiker rescues. Many of those lamentable situations are the result of life decisions every bit as poor and irresponsible as the most careless hiker, but few thinking people would dispute the value of providing these safety nets.

The difference is that hikers and climbers provide great TV (and magazine) drama for a general public that thrives on hot footage and an arms-length, love-hate relationship with adventure. Avalanche incidents and crazy mountain climbers make for inherently interesting stories that take the boredom out of feedlot urban life. But while we’re fascinated by such events, public discourse dictates that such ‘out of control’ incidents must be branded as irresponsible, the risk to public safety unacceptable, the skyrocketing costs demanding of a solution. In other words, the same old formula our media uses to magnify any controversy and thus generate audience emotion and larger viewer/readerships.

But it’s easy to pick the wrong target when looking at SAR costs. For example, the major reasons for search and rescue call-outs nationwide are Alzheimer’s patients and ‘despondents’ (potential suicides). Beyond that, an awful lot of your basic day-in-day-out SAR work involves rescues that were initiated prematurely. No one was injured, but someone was overdue, so friends and family pulled the trigger on a full-scale search the moment they began to worry.

Still, the problem of SAR costs is real. In much of the U.S. search and rescue work is coordinated by county sheriffs departments. And many wilderness gateway communities are small towns, in lightly populated counties with miniscule tax bases, ill-equipped financially to handle a sudden surge in pricey helicopter evacuations. So people are starting to get billed. And with your average garden variety search employing 20 or 30 searchers, and one or two helicopters at $10,000 a day, that price tag can add up quick.

In theory, all emergencies can be avoided with proper training, equipment and planning. But even the most experienced and expert adventurers–if they’re honest with themselves–can point back to close calls where their name could easily have ended up on the evening news. Everybody is a potential victim; Not just the stupid.

To me, the solution isn’t self-righteous, free-market billing, and the lawyer wrangling that will inevitably result, its rescue insurance like they have in Europe. In the French Alps, for example, locals and visitors alike can purchase rescue insurance cards, renewable annually, for $30 to $40. That money trains, equips and funds professional rescue teams. These policies don’t cover medical costs. You still need a good health insurance plan, but the expenses of finding and evacuating you are covered, and a highly trained SAR infrastructure is created and supported.

Some Americans already think they have rescue insurance, but they probably don’t. For example, in Colorado you can purchase an inexpensive COSAR (Colorado Search and Rescue Card) which merely allows sheriff’s departments or volunteer rescue groups to apply for funds to offset the expense of a large or involved effort. Similar plans come attached to various state hunting and fishing licenses. But victims are finding, to their surprise, that their expected coverage falls short.

What’s much less known is that you CAN get real rescue insurance here in the U.S., and it isn’t that expensive. I haven’t shopped around much, but I already know of two viable options:

[] American Alpine Club membership automatically qualifies you for $5,000 worth of search, rescue and evacuation insurance while hiking or climbing on peaks of any height, which might be plenty of coverage for the average, cautious hiker. You can also purchase increased coverage from the AAC’s insurance provider, Global Rescue Inc., a worldwide rescue and security company with 24/7 service. Plans include short-term, high-coverage policies for risky expedition world-wide.

[] Another option: My SPOT satellite text messenger (a 2008 Editor’s Choice product, and, like PLBs and sat phones, the subject of future postings) comes with an insurance plan for $100,000 worth of search and evacuation insurance – for only $9/year with purchase of the beacon ($160) and annual subscription ($100). That service is contracted through a private global rescue company called GEOS Alliance. You can purchase their stand-alone worldwide SAR insurance, with the same $100,000 benefit, for as little as $150/year.

So as the adventure season cranks up, maybe it’s time to do a little shopping. And for someone you love, I can’t think of a better birthday present than rescue insurance.

Stay safe,

Steve Howe

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