As many of you know, I am a member of CLMRG (the China Lake Mountain Rescue Group). CLMRG is one of about 20 teams in California that belong to the national MRA (Mountain Rescue Association). All of these, together with water, urban, cave, etc., SAR teams, belong to NASAR (National Association for Search and Rescue). And all have vigorously opposed charging victims for SAR, going way back to when the question first arose decades ago.

NASAR issued the following position statement on April 30, 2009:

Billing for Searches and Rescues Endangers the Public and Rescuers

Washington, DC April 30, 2009. The National Association for Search and Rescue has 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.
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Founded in 1973, the National Association for Search and Rescue comprises more than 10,000 volunteer and paid search and rescue professionals who work at the local, state and national level in land, aviation and water SAR. NASAR conducts hundreds of training courses and thousands of certification exams each year. More than 11,000 people hold any of 11 NASAR certifications in SAR operations.

National Association for Search and Rescue
P.O. Box 232020, Centreville, VA 20120 (Washington, DC) (877) 893-0702

Notwithstanding the above, sometimes people get themselves into a SAR situation by egregiously poor decisions and behavior. That's a horse of a different color, and they can be cited and charged.

There are many examples, and I remember this one from years ago. A hunter went into the high country west of Little Lake, and shot a buck. He was a few miles from the road, and it was too big for him to pack out. So he decided to wait until he was missed, a search would be launched, and a helicopter would find him. Carry him out, along with his gear,...and his buck.

It all worked like clockwork, but the (Navy) helo crew drew the line at the buck. He was charged.