Who pays for a backcountry rescue?
March 6, 2010
About four years ago, a solo climber on the south side of Quandary Peak near Breckenridge got disoriented and stuck. She called 911 and the on-call mission coordinator for the Summit County Rescue Group made contact with her by cell phone. She repeatedly refused assistance and said she just wanted to be talked out of the area. This particular area of Quandary is quite dangerous, and it was after dark when she called. After going back and forth with her for some time, the coordinator finally asked why she didn’t want help and her answer was, “I can’t afford it.” Once he explained to her that there would be no charge she instantly changed her tune, and the team deployed and assisted her out.
This is one of many examples across the state of Colorado of the misperceptions regarding charges for backcountry rescue. If you are rescued by one of the search and rescue teams in Colorado that is entirely staffed by volunteers – and that’s all but one team across the entire state – you won’t be charged for the cost of your rescue. You’ll only incur charges for two things:
1. Medical care by ambulance service personnel, if you need it
2. Medical transport, by ambulance or helicopter
What the Quandary example and many others like it illustrate is that the practice of charging for rescue, or the misperception about it, is dangerous, both for the rescue subject and the rescuers. When people delay calling for help, it gets later and darker and the weather gets worse. Injuries are aggravated further, hypothermia sets in, patients go into shock or bleed out. Now the rescue is more challenging and the results may be worse; in some cases, the result may even be a fatality. And rescuers who might have been able to find or rescue someone in the afternoon and been home in time for dinner are now getting out of their beds at 3 a.m. and battling sub-zero temperatures.
We’re fortunate to live in a state where rescue groups don’t charge for their services; residents of some other states are not as fortunate. In New Hampshire, for example, there is legislation that allows subjects to be charged in cases of “negligence.” Defining negligence is a tricky thing. In the well-publicized 2008 case of Scott Mason, a 17-year-old Eagle Scout who was lost for three days in the White Mountains, his parents received a bill for $25,000. Mason was well prepared from a survival standpoint and was in good shape when he was found, but authorities decided that he was negligent for going off a marked trail with a sprained ankle.
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If you read the many articles and blogs out there on this subject, you’ll see a lot of people commenting about the “stupidity” of those who need to be rescued and complaining that taxpayers foot the bill. Of course, we could say the same thing about the person who accidentally lights his kitchen on fire and requires a response from the local fire department. But perhaps the more important point to be made here is that Colorado has a very effective program for covering some SAR costs without using taxpayer money, called the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card, or CORSAR card. You can purchase a CORSAR card in any outdoor recreation shop, or by going to http://bit.ly/MIh5y. Your money goes into a fund that allows search and rescue teams to get reimbursed for their expenses. When you buy a hunting or fishing license or register a snowmobile, boat or ATV, money goes into the same fund.
It’s important to understand that the CORSAR card is not backcountry rescue insurance; you will still get a bill for any medical services or medical transport that might be needed.
But buying the card is the right thing to do, and we encourage all backcountry recreationalists to do so. We also encourage people to donate to us if they have the means, because after all, we are a nonprofit organization that exists primarily on donations and grants. But you will not be charged for backcountry rescue services in Summit County, whether you have the card or not. So don’t be that person on Quandary next summer, needing help and delaying the call. The volunteers of the Summit County Rescue Group will be out there for you when you need us.