US Rescues Cost Taxpayers MillionsJONATHAN D. SALANT , Associated Press
Mar. 11, 1999 2:58 AM ET
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal taxpayers pay millions of dollars a year to rescue capsized boaters, stranded hikers or injured campers _ as well adventurers whose own actions get them into trouble.
Officials of the Coast Guard and the National Park Service, two federal agencies with multimillion-dollar search-and-rescue operations, say they're not in the business of deciding which rescues are warranted and which aren't. But lawmakers in some states want those who disregard warnings to pick up the costs of rescuing them.
Federal officials said they don't want to send out bills because it might discourage those in need from calling for help.
``What if a small child is missing and we need a number of helicopters?'' asked Ken Phillips, the search and rescue coordinator at Grand Canyon National Park, which charges only for transporting an injured person to a hospital. ``If we have the feeling that it places a financial burden on the family, it's almost going to cause emergency response personnel to want to take short cuts. That's going to hurt victims.''
But some state lawmakers say that people who get into danger because they ignore warnings should pay for the rescues themselves instead of having taxpayers pick up the bill.
The Coast Guard spent $380 million of its $4 billion budget on search-and-rescue operations in 1997, while the National Park Service spent $3.4 million the same year, the most recent figures available. The Air Force also helped with rescues but did not have figures immediately available.
The totals include rescues of people who became endangered by unforeseen circumstances as well as those who were taking risks.
In Michigan, at least 95 ice fishermen have been rescued from lakes in one area alone this winter, prompting state lawmakers to introduce legislation requiring those who put themselves in danger by ignoring warnings to pay rescue costs, or perform community service.
In December, the Coast Guard and local agencies spent a total of $85,000 to rescue 18 fishermen from an ice floe that broke off in Michigan's Lake St. Clair and was sinking in a snowstorm. The operation, conducted in gusty winds that drove wind chills below zero, required several boats and a helicopter.
Officials said the fishermen used bad judgment by going out on the lake too early in the season, before the ice was safe.
``Some of these people just defy the laws of consequence,'' said Democratic state Rep. William Callahan, a sponsor of the measure. ``They will think twice before they do something stupid again.''
Similar bills have been introduced annually in Hawaii, where federal and county rescuers spent $75,000 in 1992 to rescue a movie cameraman trapped in a steaming volcanic crater. The cameraman had been shooting movie footage of the world's most active volcano, Kilauea.
The National Park Service in 1993 considered requiring mountain climbers and others engaged in risky adventures to pay for their own rescues, but dropped the idea.
Instead, some national parks are stepping up efforts to discourage reckless behavior and thrill seekers. At Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, hikers who wish to climb Mount McKinley, North America's highest peak, must register in advance and list previous mountain climbs. In addition, each climber is charged $150, which helps finance rescues.
Others think the federal government should ask risk-takers to pay.
A case in point: the $130,275 the Coast Guard spent to rescue three balloonists who failed in their attempt to circle the world and ditched their craft off Oahu, Hawaii, on Christmas Day. The balloonists included Richard Branson, the British chairman of the Virgin records, soda and airlines empire, and U.S. millionaire Steve Fossett.
After the rescue, Branson said he would pay if asked. But the Coast Guard didn't ask.
``People who knowingly take a risk to try to set a record ought to assume the financial costs,'' said Peter Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a Washington-based group that advocates less government spending. ``These are people who know the dangers but are going ahead anyway. Taxpayers should not subsidize thrill seekers.''