When would-be adventurers get more adventure than they bargained for, who should bear the blame – and the price for bailing them out?
Despite years of ever-riskier adventures and equally elaborate rescue efforts when adventures become misadventures, government agencies and military services generally are reluctant to seek compensation from America's lost hikers, marooned sailors, stranded snowmobilers and fallen spelunkers.
So if there is a tab – most mountain and wilderness rescue is conducted by volunteers — the taxpayer winds up paying it.
The issue has come up following the ocean rescue over the weekend of a family with two young children that was sailing around the world on a 36-foot sailboat when it stalled hundreds of miles off the Mexican coast. After one child fell ill, the Navy, Coast Guard and California Air National Guard mounted an elaborate operation that involved an elite group of commando-medics parachuting to the rescue.
Petty Officer Second Class Barry Bena, a Coast Guard spokesman, said there were no plans to charge the family, even though four members of the rescue unit have spent days at the child's side.
"We're not concerned with that right now,'' he said, "and it's usually not an issue. We're here to provide public service. If U.S. citizens need assistance, that is our main priority.'' He called rescues like the one off Mexico "a public service we provide to U.S. citizens in distress.''
Lt. Roderick Bersamina, a spokesman for the California Air National Guard, agreed: "Bottom line, you can't put a price on life.''
Only a few states, including Oregon, Maine and Idaho, allow local agencies to bill for rescues in cases of recklessness, deceit or illegal activity. Many outdoor and rescue organizations have lobbied against such search and rescue fees, saying they only make things worse.
Military and civilian experts agreed that collecting for rescue services sounds easier and smarter than it is. They cited these problems:
• It can be hard to prove the adventurer was at fault. As Bersamina put it, "Who wants to put themselves in danger? No one means to do that.'' Adventurers aren't always as foolhardy as they might seem and don't always admit they were wrong. One person's adventure is another's folly – and possibly a question for courts to resolve.
• It can be hard to collect. "They're not going to be writing you a check when you pick them up in the helicopter,'' said Bryan Enberg, chairman of the Appalachian region of the Mountain Rescue Association, a national volunteer group.
• It can scare off those who need help. The fear of being billed may deter people who need help from seeking it until it's too late — or late enough to create additional risks and challenges for rescuers, as night descends or a storm worsens.
This argument has been used effectively by rescue groups to lobby against state laws allowing agencies to recover costs from those they rescue. "We'd rather have them call for help than not call,'' said Kevin Adam, a lieutenant in the Maine Warden Service and the state search and rescue coordinator.
• Rescue operations are good training. Missions such as the family's rescue in the Pacific "allow us to hone our skills for combat missions,'' Bersamina said.
About 60% of those rescued by the Cal Air Guard's elite Guardian Angel pararescue unit are civilians, ranging from Chinese fisherman in mid-ocean to recreational sailors such as the Kaufmans, the San Diego family rescued over the weekend.
Enberg said military and police organizations routinely write off involvement in such missions as training exercises.
• No matter how negligent or reckless, the rescued usually become sympathetic figures and less appealing targets for dunning.
Consider Nicholas Joy, a 17-year-old high school student from Medford, Mass., who last year survived two frigid nights in the Maine woods by building a snow cave and drinking from an icy stream.
He'd become separated from his father at Sugarloaf Mountain Resort when he skied out of bounds off a marked trial.
Whatever his faults as a navigator, or his weakness for the path less taken, by the time Nicholas was found, no one — including Maine officials, who estimated the search cost $15,000 – was in the mood to charge the heroic survivor's family.
"He didn't intend to leave the ski area boundaries,'' Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin said. "We'll take him at his word for that."
Contributing: Marisol Bello