Foley: Search and Rescue is free in Colorado
In New Hampshire, if you get lost or injured in the backcountry you will more than likely be charged for the expense of your rescue if you are deemed to be negligent or reckless by authorities. You could be negligent for something as simple as getting caught out after dark without a flashlight or going for a hike when the weather is bad. Reckless behavior is more serious and involves engaging in “highly unreasonable conduct.” By purchasing a NH Hike Safe Card for $25 annually your negligence, and the SAR bill, is forgiven. There is no coverage for being reckless.
In Grand County, Utah, which includes the Moab area, it has been common practice for the local sheriff to send a bill to anyone who is rescued – except for locals. They also give you a break if you die– no charges are billed to the family. Last year, Utah passed a bill (HB 324) that allows all Utah counties to charge for search and rescue and created the Utah Search and Rescue Assistance Card that exempts holders from search and rescue charges. Apparently, the bill has not been implemented – there is no way to purchase the card, even though you could be billed if you need rescue.
Here in Colorado, like most of the USA, there is very seldom a charge for search and rescue. Sure, it’s possible that you could be charged by the Sheriff or other authority, but this would likely occur only if you were breaking the law. Trespassing or ignoring a ski area boundary marker would be examples. We have never seen a Grand County, Colorado, Sheriff charge anybody for search and rescue, ever.
This position of not charging for search and rescue is supported by all prominent search and rescue organizations including the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), the Mountain Rescue Association (MRA), National Park Service and the Colorado Search and Rescue Board (CSRB). As an accredited MRA team, Grand County Search and Rescue supports this position and will never charge for our service.
Howard Paul, 30 year veteran of neighboring Alpine Rescue Team and NASAR spokesperson, says “We oppose charging for one predominate reason. We know that when people have a perception that they will be billed for rescue, they may delay calling for help, they may choose not to call for help or they may refuse help when it arrives.” The CSRB has put together a list of actual incidents where people have delayed calling for help or refused assistance because they afraid of being charged.
There is a very common misconception, sometimes fueled by the media, that SAR is expensive and that those poor souls who need to be rescued will or should be charged. Some have the opinion that anybody who would risk leaving the trailhead should be responsible for any rescue expense, especially if they are tourists.
Consider a child lost from a family outing, or a hunter who suffers a stroke, or a hiker who slips and falls. Should they be sucker punched with a SAR bill?
Besides hoping that people will call for help without fear of financial consequence, there are other reasons we believe that there should never be a charge for rescue. The vast majority of rescues are performed by professional volunteer teams, like GCSAR, and are usually over within a matter of hours so the costs are relatively low.
What about helicopters? We haven’t had to pay for helicopter service for years. There would be no reason to charge for a service that does not cost anything. One caveat: If you are transported by a medical helicopter for medical reasons you will be charged, just as you would be for an ambulance ride.
If the call for help is delayed, there is a real potential that the subjects could find themselves in greater danger due to injury, weather or darkness. These same factors can make a SAR incident more dangerous for the volunteers. Responding to a backcountry incident at night in a storm is inherently dangerous.
If you think that you need search and rescue assistance, make the decision to call 9-1-1 or send someone for help as soon as you can. We would much prefer to get started on a response and then get turned around than respond to a situation made worse simply by the passage of time. It’s really an easy call to make, search and rescue is free in Colorado.
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 36 years. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.
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