A Wyoming state legislator has proposed a bill that would allow people to be billed for search and rescue (SAR) missions within the state. Sponsored by Representative Keith Gingery of Teton County, full or partial charges could be implemented on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the Sheriff's Office of the county where the rescue occurred.
The bill will be introduced this winter during the Wyoming legislature's session. Gingery said he hopes to see the bill passed by March 2013. If passed, the bill would affect skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers and other winter travelers who get lost or injured in the backcountry and call for help.
If the bill passes, Wyoming will join six other states that currently allow for some degree of billing for SAR operations: New Hampshire, Hawaii, Vermont, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, as well as Grand and Wayne Counties in Utah. The laws of those states range from a limit of $500 on SAR charges to unlimited with a determination of negligence or intentional disregard of safety.
Gingery, who is also Deputy Attorney for Teton County, which contains Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, cited an increase in expenses and demand for complicated, dangerous, and high-tech rescues. The cost of missions and maintaining Teton County's extensive SAR operations (TCSAR) has become burdensome on the county's funds, said Gingery. Half of Wyoming's 312 SAR missions in 2011 were conducted in four of the state's 23 counties: Teton and its neighboring counties of Fremont, Sublette, and Park.
Gingery's bill was prompted in part by two incidents involving TCSAR last winter, according to Suzie Kirvinskee, who works for the Teton County Sheriff and is a citizen member of the governor-appointed Wyoming State Search and Rescue Council. "Three snowmobiles got lost last winter. We spent hours in the air looking for them. They were in a bad place due to very poor decision making and they needed rescue," said Kirvinskee. The victims declined to pay any portion of Teton County's $13,000 request for jet-fuel reimbursement.
Following this, a sidecountry skier left Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's boundaries alone on a high avalanche danger day, caused a slide and called for rescue, asking that rescuers help find her missing skis as well. "We're really good at rescuing people in Teton County. Sometimes things just go wrong, but sometimes, people are doing things that are really dumb. These are the people we would be seeking full or partial repayment from," said Gingery.
Unlike many SAR teams that request the help of the military for air searches,Teton County pays for a communications center and leases a helicopter for ready deployment during the winter at a monthly cost of $20,000. Geographic isolation makes outside help unfeasible, so TCSAR brings in a pilot trained in mountain landings, searches, deep snow, adverse weather, avalanche control work, and familiar with techniques such as short-haul rescue. The likely expense that the county would consider billing for is helicopter fuel while flying search missions, said Gingery.
The bill has sparked a contentious debate in Wyoming. According to Tim Ciocarlan, a 20-year volunteer with TCSAR and current director of the volunteer team, the number of rescues and the degree of difficulty of the rescues have increased over the last 20 years. "Technology and gear help people push the limits. There are people who knowingly push the limits and get into trouble. When somebody does that, we send people and an aircraft -- it puts a lot of people at risk," said Ciocarlan.
However, Ciocarlan does not support billing for rescue. "I don't know where you draw the line," he said. "What is reasonable action? Who's going to make the call: dumb or an accident? That is a very difficult decision. My personal belief is not to charge for rescue, but as rescues increase, it is an enormous burden on taxpayers and the county," he said.
Ciocarlan's stance against billing for SAR services echoes the official position of the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) and the Mountain Rescue Association. The idea that people in trouble may not call for help for fear of a bill is the main reason for NASAR opposition, according to Howard Paul, who is on the Board of Directors for NASAR as well as Public Affairs manager for Colorado SAR. "Where do you draw the line on a reasonable action or negligence?" said Paul. "What is reasonable to me may not be reasonable to my neighbor."