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N.H. Bills Lost Hikers for Cost of Rescue

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  • Roleigh Martin
    excerpt - thanks to Ed Rodriguez for pointer about this story (I found the link)
    Message 1 of 3 , Oct 31, 2009
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      excerpt - thanks to Ed Rodriguez for pointer about this story (I found the link)

      http://www.newstin.com/go-to-link/153765776/http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/10/29/national/main5451330.shtml

      CONCORD, N.H., Oct. 29, 2009

      N.H. Bills Lost Hikers for Cost of Rescue

      Seven Other States Have Laws Allowing Such Charges, But Some Groups Say the Policy Is Dangerous


      (AP)  Stranded with a sprained ankle on a snow-covered mountain, Eagle Scout Scott Mason put his survival skills to work by sleeping in the crevice of a boulder and jump-starting evergreen fires with hand sanitizer gel.

      He put plastic bags inside his boots to keep his feet dry as he sloshed through mountain runoff hidden beneath waist-deep snow. After three cold days last April, rescue crews spotted him hiking toward the summit of Mount Washington, the Northeast's highest mountain.

      Read Mason's survival story

      New Hampshire officials praised his resourcefulness. So grateful was he for his rescuers that Mason, 17, sent $1,000 to the state.

      Sometime later, New Hampshire sent him a bill: $25,734.65 for the cost of rescuing him.

      New Hampshire is one of eight states with laws allowing billing for rescue costs, but only New Hampshire has made frequent attempts to do so — even strengthening its law last year to allow the suspension of hiking, fishing and driver's licenses of those who don't pay, according to an Associated Press review.

      National search and rescue organizations insist just the possibility of being billed is dangerous policy. Hikers may delay calling for help while they think about the cost, and that could put them — and the mostly volunteer corps of rescuers — at greater risk.

      Other states with laws allowing them to recoup costs rarely, if ever, enforce them, largely for that reason, the AP found.

      "If it had happened in Colorado, he would have been applauded for being able to survive for three days," said Paul "Woody" Woodward, president of Colorado's Alpine Rescue Team. "New Hampshire is way out on their own on this one."

      New Hampshire officials counter that being properly prepared — not the size of the scout's bill — should be the message about visiting wilderness areas. And, fish and game officials say, many of the state's trailheads are posted with signs warning hikers they may be billed for rescue costs if they aren't properly prepared.

      Mason, now an 18-year-high school senior, from Halifax, Mass., has hired a lawyer to try to negotiate a settlement. Officials said he was found to be negligent because he veered off the marked path, was unprepared for melting snow that made a shortcut perilous and went up the mountain with an injured ankle, not down.

      The bill included more than $24,000 for a helicopter and labor provided by state fish and game officers. Volunteers provided their time at no charge.

      Three states besides New Hampshire — Hawaii, Oregon and Maine — have general laws allowing agencies to bill for rescues. Only Maine has attempted to recoup money a handful of times and the bills were never paid. California, Vermont, Colorado and Idaho have laws allowing state agencies to bill in limited circumstances, but the laws are rarely enforced — and when they are, draw a firestorm of protest from search and rescue groups.

      Two years ago, the fire department in Golden, Colo., rescued a hiker from Kansas who had sprained his ankle and later billed him for $5,135. The outcry from national search and rescue groups influenced the city to change its policy and settle with the hiker for 10 percent of the bill.

      Only New Hampshire has consistently billed people. Last year, lawmakers increased the likelihood of being billed when they lowered the legal standard from reckless to negligent to make it easier to collect.

      Records obtained by The Associated Press from a Freedom of Information Act request found that New Hampshire spent $413,543 on 275 rescue missions over the past two years. The state issued 16 bills for rescues totaling $41,435 — with Mason's $25,000 bill the largest. The state spent far more, $59,426, on a December 2007 search that was not billed. In that case, the body of the 70-year-old hunter was found four months later. His family was not billed.

      "We're not going out there with the intent to bill everyone," insists Fish and Game Maj. Timothy Acerno.

      Policies vary across the country on penalizing people who ignore weather warnings, don't carry flashlights on long hikes, fail to leave itineraries, ski out of bounds or are otherwise unprepared or act irresponsibly.

      If Mason had gotten lost in a National Park, his rescue would have been free, said David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service.

      New Hampshire officials stress they only bill those who are negligent.

      Acerno said that experienced search and rescue volunteers and fish and game staff consider what a reasonable person would have done and measure the person's actions against a hiker responsibility code that calls for knowing the terrain and conditions, taking proper gear, leaving an itinerary and turning back if conditions change. The attorney general's office makes the final determination.

      Hannah Groom, a 21-year-old college student from Cumberland, Maine, learned the hard way.

      [clip] --  goto link for rest of story

      http://www.newstin.com/go-to-link/153765776/http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/10/29/national/main5451330.shtml
    • John Ladd
      I found Roleigh s posting quite interesting, especially the extracts below, which focus on the question whether it is good policy to charge hikers for rescues.
      Message 2 of 3 , Nov 1, 2009
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        I found Roleigh's posting quite interesting, especially the extracts below, which focus on the question whether it is good policy to charge hikers for rescues.

        On reflection, I think the benefits of charging endangered hikers for rescue costs are probably outweighed by the downsides -- even when the hiker negligently got him/herself into trouble.  People aren't negligent on purpose.  If fear of death or injury doesn't make someone prepare adequately or pay attention, the added risk of a four-figure or even five-figure bill (especially one sent to their estate) probably won't make them any more careful.  As the story points out, SAR professionals oppose charging negligent hikers for their rescue costs.

        "National search and rescue organizations insist ... Hikers may delay calling for help while they think about the cost, and that could put them — and the mostly volunteer corps of rescuers — at greater risk."

        But "Yuppie 911" abuse is a bit different from negligently getting yourself in real trouble.  The "real trouble" acts as an incentive against most stupidity.  But without some kind of sanction, what is the downside of a call for help when there is no real trouble? 

        In short, I think there are two different types of situation with maybe a middle case between the two:

        1) The Sologirl episode from early June of this year I think should never result in a sanction levied against the hiker.  One can be critical of her decisions (underequipped solo hiker takes off into bad weather in the very early season) but she was truly in danger when she activated her Spot 911 button.

        2) I think the Grand Canyon hikers a month ago were properly cited.  They weren't in trouble but called for help in a trivial situation.  (My reservation here is that according to the NPS press release 2 of their 3 calls were "Help" calls, not 911 calls and the Spot literature says that a "Help" call is NOT referred to SAR agencies.)

        3) Sologirl's failure to promptly notify SAR agencies after she hiked herself out of trouble is a middle case.  But, again, here's someone who is just so happy to be alive that she failed to think through what she should have done.  And she did the hiking community a great favor by writing up her experiences with great candor.

        California Penal Code section 148.3 pretty clearly gives the local DA an opening for criminal prosecution for the worst cases of Spot abuse

        (a) Any individual who ... causes any report to be made, to any ,,, agency ... that an "emergency" exists, knowing that the report is false, is guilty of a misdemeanor ... punishable by imprisonment ... not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding ... $1,000 ... or ... both

        (b) .. [but if the person] knows or should know that the response to the report is likely to cause death or great bodily injury, and great bodily injury or death is sustained by any person as a result of the false report, is guilty of a felony and upon conviction thereof shall be punishable by imprisonment ,,, or by a fine of not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by both that imprisonment and fine.

        (c) "Emergency" as used in this section means any condition that results in, or could result in, the response of a public official in an authorized emergency vehicle, aircraft, or vessel ...

        This doesn't catch negligent or reckless Spot abuse, but it at least catches intentional. Maybe someday, if Spot abuse proves to be common, we'll see wilderness permits which include a notice telling hikers that Spot 911 activation can be a felony (if it causes the injury/death of a responder) or misdemeanor in the absence of a true need for rescue.  Something like:

        Backpackers who carry rescue beacons such as the Spot Satellite Locator should be on notice that use of the emergency call function (such as 911) will result in an emergency response, which can put responders at risk of death or great bodily injury.  False reports of emergencies can result in criminal penalties under California Penal Code section where the user is aware that no emergency conditions actually apply.

        And a policy advantage of the criminal citation (as opposed to collecting rescue costs) is that insurance doesn't cover criminal penalties, so you can't buy yourself protection from the harm you creeate by a false alarm.

        I suppose one could argue "Hikers may delay calling for help while they think about  [potential prosecution], and that could put them — and the mostly volunteer corps of rescuers — at greater risk." 

        Possible,  But if you are in enough trouble to need a rescuer, presumably you know that you'd never be prosecuted for an intentional false emergency call.

        John Curran Ladd
        1616 Castro Street
        San Francisco, CA  94114-3707
        415-648-9279

        = Extracts from the article posted earlier ===========

        > New Hampshire is one of eight states with laws allowing billing for rescue costs, but only New Hampshire has made frequent attempts to do so ...
        >
        > National search and rescue organizations insist just the possibility of being billed is dangerous policy. Hikers may delay calling for help while they think about the cost, and that could put them — and the mostly volunteer corps of rescuers — at greater risk.
        >
        > Other states with laws allowing them to recoup costs rarely, if ever, enforce them, largely for that reason, the AP found.
        ...
        > ,,, California ... [has] laws allowing state agencies to bill in limited circumstances, but the laws are rarely enforced — and when they are, draw a firestorm of protest from search and rescue groups.
        >
        > If Mason had gotten lost in a National Park, his rescue would have been free, said David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service.
        >
        > New Hampshire officials stress they only bill those who are negligent.
      • b b
        ... The defense lawyer is going to have a field day here. I remember this case and chided the kid for choosing the trail he followed. Then I learned what
        Message 3 of 3 , Nov 1, 2009
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          >New Hampshire officials stress they only bill those who are negligent.<

          The defense lawyer is going to have a field day here. I remember this case and chided the kid for choosing the trail he followed. Then I learned what occurred. He took the "main" trail on his ascent, but was looking for a faster way down. He went to the Appalachian Mountain Club hut on the summit and sought their advice. It was on the descent he ran into problems and he was on that trail because of *the advice and guidance* of those manning the AMC hut.

          If someone is to blame it is the yahoos who advised the kid to take the "bee-line" trail. No way anyone should advise an early season day hiker to use that trail - it's rarely used, (bee-line = steep) and crosses streams that are swollen with early season snow melt. Those in the AMC hut should have advised and warned him not to use that trail and to return the way he came up. They are just as culpable, if not more so in this situation. Given that the AMC is a quasi-official organization, NH is going to but themselves in a tight spot if they pursue this action.
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