The 25,000 Dollar Question: What’s the Price of Adventure?

0 Posted by - July 30, 2009 - Huffington Post
SAR

Rescuers boarding a Black Hawk during a SAR in the winter of 2007. Although the New Hampshire Air National Guard volunteers their time for rescues, they are frequently deployed overseas and unavailable, necessitating more costly measures.

It’s fair to say Scott Mason bit off a little more than he could chew.

In April, the Eagle Scout embarked on an ambitious one day traverse of the northern Presidential range in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Early into his hike, he twisted an ankle, but chose to continue. A few miles later, Mason re-considered and opted for a quicker route back to the road, only to find the trail blocked by numerous streams swollen by spring snow melt.

While the young hiker settled down for an uncomfortable night without a sleeping bag, ensolite pad, or tent, a search effort was launched. His parents reported him missing, and soon New Hampshire Fish and Game officers, aided by an army of volunteers, were combing the mountains. A helicopter was brought in from neighboring Maine. Finally, after three long days and nights of difficult back-country travel, Mason reversed his route and rendezvoused with a search party not far from the summit of Mount Washington. When he was reunited with his parents, several network television crews and a phalanx of reporters were on hand to capture the drama.

It appeared that the Mason SAR had reached a happy conclusion. The boy was found, alive, and while he had certainly made a serious error in deciding to continue into a remote area after spraining his ankle, he also exercised some good judgment that allowed him to emerge from the experience unscathed. The embarrassment at making the A-section of the Boston Globe and being on the evening news seemed like the right dose of punishment to ensure that he would learn from his mistakes and mature to become a better prepared outdoorsman.  The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, meanwhile, got to bask in some positive PR. And dozens of volunteers got to skip work for the day and play hero.

Then came the fallout: two weeks ago, Mason received a bill for $25,238 from the State of New Hampshire.  “It was his negligence that led to him getting into that predicament,” Major Tim Acerno of the New Hampshire Fish and Game recently said, adding that a helicopter used in the search significantly increased the cost of the mission. Mason has until August 9th to pay settle up or challenge the bill in a court of law. His family has declined to comment further on the matter.

In the meantime, the situation has ignited a minor firestorm that continues to smolder as the Mason family considers their options. Not only was the teen – who, at age seventeen, was a minor at the time of the rescue, but has since turned eighteen – suddenly saddled with a bill equivalent to a year’s tuition at a private college, but he was also subject to a second round of ruthless Monday morning quarterbacking.

“If you go to these isolated areas to be “away from people…” then be prepared to die or if we have to come rescue you then get ready to pay,” one online poster opined in the comments section of a Boston Globe article. “The kid lacked basic sense. Maybe this fine will discourage other macho stupidity,” a second wrote. “It’s about time these unprepared bozos pay,” said a third.  Everyone from newspaper columnists to experienced guides have been sounding off with their own opinions on what happens when the government attempts to regulate adventure.

With that in mind, I’ll offer a few thoughts of my own.  The following is just my private opinion.  It’s based on my own general experience as an outdoorsman and guide, but also on the fact that, as a volunteer rescuer, I participated in the search for Scott Mason. And moreover — by a combination of circumstance and plain luck — I was the person who happened to find him.

It turns out Scott Mason did not need to be rescued.  When I spotted him, he was approximately a mile below the top of Mount Washington, moving towards the summit at a steady pace. I have no doubt that he would have reached the observatory located there under his own power, irregardless of the massive search operation that was under way. (I don’t mean to imply that the search effort was inept. The same swollen creeks that had boxed Scott into the Great Gulf had boxed search teams out; for three days everyone was caught in a frustrating and inadvertent game of cat-and-mouse.) But regardless of the circumstances of his “rescue”, the State has held Scott liable due to his original decision to continue into a remote area with a sprained ankle. By the letter of the law in New Hampshire as things currently stand, that is probably true.

It sets a dangerous precedent when the government assumes the authority to regulate personal decisions made in the wilderness.  As Edward Abby wrote: “A venturesome minority will always be able to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for Godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches–that is the right and privilege of any free American.” I whole heartedly agree.  And having worked alongside many Fish and Game personel during SARs, I’m convinced they don’t want to have to police the backcountry for negligent hikers either.

But even an adventure libertarian like me must acknowledge that rescues cost money, and our personal decisions can carry greater social repercussions that demand all outdoorsman assume responsibility for their actions. In the midst of a recession, land management agencies at the local, state, and federal level are all experiencing severe cash shortages.  Scott’s 25,000 dollar bill was a re-imbursement, not a penalty or punishment. The simple fact is his search cost a lot of money, far more than 25,000 dollars, and someone needs to pay the bill.

While the dispute may be headed to court, lost in the controversy is the fact that a third option does exist. If you’re in a car accident without car insurance, or get sick without health insurance, you are likely to face big financial problems whether it’s your fault or not. One can also purchase rescue insurance.  Though not commonly carried in the United States, that is the standard in Europe, and even here in the US some organizations like the American Alpine Club offer its members a basic policy. Just as I think it’s irresponsible for anyone who can afford it to not have a minimum catastrophe health insurance, outdoorsmen who choose to engage in risky adventures should make sure they are covered in the event they need help.

Nobody – not outdoorsmen, not tax payers, not the land managers themselves – wants government to be in the business of regulating adventure. But it’s clear through rising special user fees and search and rescue repayment laws that that is the direction we are headed in if the outdoor community doesn’t take responsibility on its own. Organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Sierra Club should offer their members rescue insurance. Adventurers should also have more choices for purchasing a rescue/evacuation rider on their existing health insurance plans (many do already exist). These kinds of improvements would protect the individual from big fees like the one Scott Mason currently faces, but also help prevent government agencies from applying rigid legal definitions like “negligence” to wilderness situations in their effort to re-coup costs and stay under budget.

In the meantime, be warned: if you choose to roll the dice by continuing into the wilderness with a sprained ankle and no insurance – you may unfortunately have to pay the price.

9 Comments

  • Howard Paul July 31, 2009 - 1:03 am Reply

    In April, 2009, The National Association for Search and Rescue joined the Mountain Rescue Association, the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, the International Association of Dive Rescue Specialists, the United States Coast Guard and the National Park Service – all of which either oppose billing, or do not bill, people after a search and rescue (SAR) operation. “Although it remains a local decision, billing for search and rescue operations is a dangerous practice that should be avoided,” said NASAR President Dan Hourihan.

    NASAR takes the position, “To eliminate the fear of being unable to pay for having one’s life saved, SAR services should be rendered to persons in danger or distress without subsequent cost-recovery from the person(s) assisted unless prior arrangements have been made. The mission of SAR organizations is to save lives, not just the lives of those who can afford to pay the bill. As such, methods and means should be developed and used that diffuse the cost of humanitarian SAR operations among the many, allowing anyone to reasonably expect emergency aid without regard to their circumstances.”

    The idea of not billing for SAR services confuses many people. However, SAR professionals across the nation know of many instances in which someone – after an unforeseen accident, or spending hours searching for their missing companion – delayed calling for help. Each “remembered” hearing, seeing or reading, “somewhere” that rescues and searches cost “thousands of dollars – which they could not afford. Some have even chosen not to call for help, or refused emergency help.

    In 2006, a young hiker became stranded on Colorado’s 14,270’ Quandary Peak. She called 9-1-1, but asked the SAR team leader just to “talk her out of the area.” The sun had already set and cold weather surrounded her in a dangerous area of the mountain. She repeatedly said the SAR team should not come to help her. After going back and forth with her on her cell phone, the SAR team leader finally asked why she didn’t want help. She replied, “I can’t afford it.” He explained that there would be no charge and she then relented.

    “A delay can place SAR personnel in danger and can unnecessarily compound and lengthen a SAR mission,” said Hourihan. “Not calling for emergency SAR help could be as catastrophic as not calling the fire department when a small stove-top fire jumps to the ceiling and instantly fills the kitchen with flames, because the home owner’s first thought was ‘how in the world will I pay the fire department?’”

    Then-U.S.C.G. Commandant James Loy explained it best, in 1999, in the Coast Guard’s very similar position. “If the specter of financial reimbursement hung over the decision to report maritime distress, we could get fewer calls, we would get calls during later stages of emergencies, and more people would die at sea. This factor alone outweighs any consideration of how much money we might recoup,” said Admiral Loy

    NASAR’s full position statement is at http://www.nasar.org/nasar/downloads/No_Bill_for_SAR_Position_Statement_-_NASAR_4-2009.pdf

  • pturecki July 31, 2009 - 3:06 pm Reply

    ive always found it curious that france can issue the carte blanche for a minimal cost and cover everyone in the country,or that the b.m.c. in grreat britian can do the same and even cover your gear if it gets stolen,but in the united states,the greed of the insurance companies seems to get in the way of all of that.need an example,look at the health care insurance system….and if you did have some sort of insurance and tried to use it,probably theres going to be some ‘adjuster’coming around to second guess the scenario to avoid his company having to pay out.the paradigm here isnt set up for that……another point is the prejudice against the”adventure”community.ive witnessed countless times people bitching about the cost of rescuing climbers in alaska,but ,i hear almost nothing about the cost of rescuing hunters,fishermen,and r.v. users,which,ironically is a much higher percentage of the rescues done up there.it appears if youre a good ole boy itll just slide on,but if youre a climber its going to be high profile.face it,climbers and the like are profiled similar to my latino,black and gay friends…..dont think so?,drive a van with climbing stickers to yosemite or southern utah and see if the cops take note,as compared to a clean soccer mom van.,,,third point is the a lot of the military pilots ive talked to that work on rescues actually like the work because the get to actually fly,its real training,that they wouldnt ordinarily get.and isnt the military,the police,and the like, hired to serve and protect the citizens that pay their way?they are already paid,up front ,for their services..the unfortunate thing is most are incompetent in rescue situations,and prefer driving around in new official vehicles that cost an exorbitant amount of money,profiling people and hassling easy targets while getting fat eating donuts…nuff said from this end

  • rescuer July 31, 2009 - 3:51 pm Reply

    If you don’t like helping rescue people for free, don’t volunteer. As for me, I’d rather make drivers pay per-use for police and fire department services – I’ll wager that dumb driving decisions cost WAY more than SAR missions every year.

  • Tom August 4, 2009 - 2:34 am Reply

    Having been a small time politician, I understand that being politically correct is often a sound approach, and I commend Charlie, Howard et. al. for taking that approach. I trust that they and others can bring a good deal of rational dialogue to the fore. I wish they didn’t have to do it over and over again.

    If New Hampshire should continue to prosecute Scott, and exact their “pound of flesh” there may come a point where the sports-person population of the USA could be encouraged to boycott New Hampshire because of the policy to fine (charge) for rescues in any manner. The tourist economy is a powerful source of income to many states, and there is a ton of competition for those dollars. The internet makes waging a campaign far less daunting. It sounds like this instance hasn’t reached that point, but it may be a viable option that redefines the thought process for other states, before more jump on the “charge for rescues” bandwagon.

    I used to work on Mt. Washington and had to negotiate it’s slopes and weather as a routine part of the job. It can be a tough place to deal with and an easy place to make mistakes; the weather there is truly evil. I also have done many hundreds of rescues in Colorado and served as a CSRB coordinator, so I know the issue and applaud the steadfast “no charge” stance.

    I don’t want to give the impression that I am angry at New Hampshire or that a boycott is less than a heavy handed measure but rather that I can’t help but notice that this issue never dies and has to be re-engaged on a regular basis. Perhaps it will come to pass that a very loud boycott would change that dynamic. Anyway, food for thought.

  • zoe hart August 8, 2009 - 8:33 am Reply

    Freddie, like your thoughts. and agree on the responsibility….

    but c’mon “irregardless” is not a word,he he he, double negative! Time to read some more dictionaries!

    luv ya
    z

  • Scott August 8, 2009 - 11:37 am Reply

    Great article and thank you for being rational. I would never want to discourage adventure, it is what I enjoy most in life. But unlike many Americans, I recognize that I have to be accountable for my actions. If people venture off on these solo missions like Scott Mason or Aaron Ralston, they need to do everything possible to make sure folks know exactly where they are and that they can be found. It’s amazing how high in the mountains I’ve been in Colorado and still had a cell signal. How bout a good old flare? I recognize Scott didn’t want a rescue, but his parents weren’t irrational in assuming him in trouble given the “one day” nature of his planned hike. The fact is, whether rescues include volunteers or not, they are not free and our park services and other government outdoors agencies are constantly low on funds as it is. As you said, his bill is not a penalty, it is simply a request to recoup expenses. Solo adventuring is at times risky, and one risk is that you may have to pay for a rescue should you need it. The insurance concept is certainly an option, but I do agree that it adds a layer of administration and profit to something that can simply be pay for use. Insurance often makes us more willing to take risk. That’s a primary reason why Americans have allowed ourselves to become so obese and unhealthy, for years, our health insurance would take care of everything. Your heart attack, your bypass, your wheeled cart, etc. all was paid for by insurance. If you knew that you might have to foot the bill for your bypass, you might skip that next double cheeseburger. Let’s keep adventure alive and take accountability for our actions. If you go solo, be willing to accept the risk and responsibility.

  • psh3r August 8, 2009 - 5:35 pm Reply

    did this kid ask to be rescued? no. did he request SAR intervention? no.

    if someone comes to your house while you’re out of town and replaces the roof without your approval, would anyone expect you to foot the bill? NO.

    if his parents were his legal guardians at the time SAR was called AND they agreed to pay SAR costs, the bill should be on them. if they didn’t agree to pay beforehand, then no one should be charged.

  • John August 8, 2009 - 5:45 pm Reply

    Fat, obese people sitting in front of the TV munching on chips and beer cost our society a whole lot more than the occasional rescue of an otherwise healthy, active hiker who makes a few mistakes. Reckless is another story — and should be clearly defined (i.e. hiking/climbing while under the influence, etc.) Until we start charging for police and fire service for every car accident (which by definition has at least one driver who was at least negligent, i.e. made a bad mistake), I am more than happy to have my tax dollars contribute to SAR. I, too, am a SAR volunteer, and I am quite happy to stay a volunteer. Hey, Freddy, I don’t think you found Scott, I think your team found Scott.

  • fentonwest August 12, 2009 - 12:47 pm Reply

    I’m an AAC member, and I have their insurance, though I’ve never had to use it. Even if Scott Mason had been an AAC member, that still might not have covered this bill. The AAC’s insurance says that they won’t cover rescue services that they didn’t authorize, though they may make exceptions in cases like this. I don’t know who requested this rescue, but if it was requested based on a sign in log (as I understand has happened before in the Whites), he could still have gotten stuck with the bill, even if he had AAC insurance. I understand the cost and the dangers involved in a rescue, but I think that any climber or hiker should be concerned about being asked to pay for something that they didn’t ask for and didn’t need.

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