Saturday, January 16, 2010

Paying for Rescue

Photo: New Zealand Land Search & Rescue

Recently in New Zealand, an empty kayak was seen floating down a very swollen river on the South Island. Search & Rescue was alerted, a helicopter dispatched to scan the river, and two kayakers rescued from the riverbank.

After the rescue, the two were asked to pay for the $4000 rescue, because conditions were very dangerous and they should have known better than to try to run the river while it was in flood. The kayakers claim they were OK and the rescue was unnecessary and unrequested, so they don't feel they should have to pay for it.

It raises an interesting issue which comes up in the press now and then here. Should people who get themselves into trouble in the wilderness because they are unprepared or unskilled have to pay back the cost of their rescue? Or is this a public service that should never cost the end user money? And who gets to decide whether their situation was due to incompetence or circumstances beyond their control?

People have called in rescue teams for some pretty stupid stuff here in NZ. People who went on multi-day tramps with almost no food because they didn't want to carry extra weight. People who decided to take "short cuts" and got lost or hurt, people who tried to climb in alpine terrain in shorts and a t-shirt because it was sunny and warm at the bottom of the mountain. I've even heard of people calling for rescue because they decided they were too tired to walk back to the trailhead.

Often tourists are blamed for this sort of behaviour. But locals actually account for the majority of rescues in New Zealand. However, the general feeling seems to be that if you are visiting the country, since you aren't a taxpayer, you should get an invoice for your rescue.

I have no idea how this works in other countries. Maybe some of you can enlighten me as to what happens if you need to be rescued in the US? In Europe? In Australia? Do you get asked to pay for it?

I'm of two minds with this. On the one hand I know that the system gets abused because it's free. On the other hand, I'd hate to see a situation where people died in the wilderness because they felt they couldn't afford the help they needed.


Mike said...

Hi Michelle. I'm fairly certain that Search and Rescue in New Zealand isn't allowed to ask for payment. It's written into law somewhere. It's either ACC or the Police who underwrite the expense, depending on the circumstances, not including whatever expenses are absorbed by volunteers taking time off work, etc). In special circumstances the police might then have an option of prosecuting someone for doing something stupid that wasted everyone's time and resources.

I've been following and trying to figure this out, because I'm confused. I don't know for certain but I think the critical difference here is that the Police Search and Rescue Coordination wasn't officially notified or involved at all -- it was entirely the Queenstown Lakes District Council that took the initiative in the same way that your or I might have investigated if we found an empty kayak floating somewhere. In the council's case, though, it was done by sending out an expensive helicopter on the (probably justified) assumption that someone needed rescuing. If the kayakers had pressed an EPIRB button or otherwise notified the national police search and rescue coordinator, which would legally oblige the police to follow it up, the whole thing would have been free by law. Maybe SAR would still put out a noisy press release saying 'stupid bloody kayakers'.

I'm unsure about their chances, but I'm still watching with interest.

Frankly I'm uncomfortable that sometimes rescues are guaranteed free but occasionally a rescuer might show up and demand an undetermined amount of money after the fact. $4,000 might be manageable for people good at looking after their finances (which many in New Zealand are awful at, especially young people), but what if the council had spent $40,000 on a whim and then demanded it back? If I'm going to be rescued, I'd like certainty.

Anonymous said...

Hello... Our Team does not charge for any Services.. we are a non profit organization ans support our selves on donantions and fund raising.

There are a few large Cities that will charge a "rescue" fee if you intentionaly place your self in danger but as of yet there are no "volunteer" teams charging for the SAR service.

Maple Kiwi said...

Sounds like the charge must be coming from somewhere other than NZ Land Search & Rescue. Unfortunately the article I was wasn't very specific.

If anyone knows the details - please share!

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.