Fairness in paying for search and rescue

Lately I’ve been following a story in the news about two stranded kayakers who were rescued, sent a bill, and are refusing to pay. I guess I’ve been finding the whole concept of being sent a bill for a search and rescue operation difficult to grasp, because standard practice in New Zealand is that they’re supposed to be free, specifically so people should not be discouraged from requesting help when they’re in trouble. Perhaps someone in the know can comment, but I suppose this is different because neither the New Zealand Police nor the Search and Rescue Coordination Centre were notified or involved in the search. What bothers me most about this story is that until now, I’d generally been under the impression that rescues were free, even as written into law.

[Edit 29-April-2013: If you’ve stumbled upon this post when searching for information about how Search and Rescue is charged (or not charged) in New Zealand, I’d also strongly recommend reading this much more recent post, in which I’ve provided more detail about how the system works.]

The gist of the situation is that on 3rd December 2009 the Shotover River was flooded, but the kayakers (reportedly experienced) went anyway despite having been warned against it, and despite the local tourist rafting and jet boat operators refusing to operate. The kayakers had a mis-hap, losing one of the kayaks and with one of them breaking a finger. The empty kayak was spotted down-river, and on the reasonable assumption that someone could be in serious trouble, authorities of the Queenstown Lakes District Council sent a helicopter to investigate. The two kayakers were discovered on opposite banks of the river, and reportedly “very pleased to see the helicopter”. The harbourmaster of the council later sent a bill to recover the $4,000 cost, and now plans to go to small claims court to get it back.

Most of the media (the Herald and Stuff are representative) report the story from a perspective that the kayakers were warned, shouldn’t have gone, and wasted everyone’s time. The kayakers themselves (un-named as best as I can tell) claim that they weren’t in serious trouble, never requested a rescue, and don’t see why they should have to pay for it. With a quick search I’ve noticed that several people have blogged thoughts about this story in various places (some with following discussions), notably Michelle over at Love in a Tent, David at Paddling Instructor, Kerry L at Kayak & Kayaking, and even (added 22-12-2010) a discussion provoked by James on Geekzone.

I can’t comment with authority about whether these kayakers were being irresponsible. Rescuers claim it was irresponsible, but the kayakers were supposedly experienced and capable of making their own decisions based on knowledge about their abilities. From the description (and I’m not going on first-hand information) it sounds as if the kayakers perhaps could have gotten themselves out of the situation and were perhaps busy figuring this out, but accepted a helicopter ride because it showed up. Supposedly the two were “very happy” to have the helicopter available, but it seems probable that they weren’t informed at the time that the rescue was going to cost them anything. Within New Zealand, it would be a reasonable assumption in a compromising situation that any rescue helicopter on offer is free, particularly if it’s obviously been sent to search for you without having been requested, and even if you’re not in absolute dire trouble. On the other side (as has been pointed out by the harbourmaster), they can’t ignore the sign of an empty kayak floating down a flooded river.

The question of fault isn’t the most important here, though. I’m uncomfortable with how they were sent a bill at all, and are now being threatened with court action. Typically within New Zealand, search and rescue operations are not charged back to those being rescued. After the event, things are assessed and costs are either underwritten by ACC or by the New Zealand Police. If the national search and rescue coordination services are notified (by emergency beacons or otherwise), the service is legally obliged to follow up the notice and respond as appropriate, and cannot legally ask for payment. These legal obligations will not prevent the Police and/or SAR from issuing noisy press releases shouting “stupid idiot trampers” or (in this case) “stupid idiot kayakers”, and in excessive cases such as people being very obviously stupid or wasting police time, the police can choose to prosecute a person in court for wasting time and resources. But a person can’t be charged up-front, and this ensures a situation where people aren’t considering silly and irrelevant details about affordability of requesting a rescue when their life is in danger. It also supports a situation where people are comfortable donating vast voluntary resources (time, money and experience and leave from their regular work) without feeling so much as if they’re being ripped off by a system where the victim pays someone but not them.

There’s an ongoing debate in New Zealand about whether people should pay for rescues, whether there should be a requirement for tourists and/or back-country users to sign up to some kind of insurance scheme, and perhaps it has merit. New Zealand isn’t the only place with this debate, either. For example, the Spanish province of Catalonia decided to start charging particularly reckless people late last year, citing hourly rates of helicopters and people required during the search and rescue. There’s also a Facebook page campaigning for free SAR operations throughout the USA. What bothers me in the apparent New Zealand situation is the inconsistency of there being a general policy of rescues being at no charge, but still having some invoices issued depending entirely on the circumstances of the rescuers — not the rescued. Even if this bill can’t be enforced, sending it through the courts creates uncertainty that could create doubt in people’s minds about requesting a rescue when they really need it.

It’s understandable that the Queenstown Lakes District Council Harbourmaster felt obliged to launch a helicopter, did so independently for expedience, and the budget will be limited, which is why the harbourmaster wants to recover the costs somehow. The possibility that rescuers could show up to help a person in trouble, and that person might not know whether the search will cost or not, is concerning, because unless all rescues are free of charge, it compromises the reason for other searches being free of charge. The more often this happens, the more often people will think twice about accepting an offer of rescue when they genuinely need it. I like to think that if and when I’m rescued after a back-country mistake, I’d make an effort to donate at least the cost of my rescue as long as it’s within my means. In this case it was $4,000, and such a cost could be manageable for people good at managing their money (which a significant number of people in New Zealand are awful at, by the way). If it happened to be a $40,000 invoice, which wouldn’t necessarily include the time, resources and expense put in by any number of volunteers, it would be completely unaffordable for most. The consequences of telling local authorities that they can’t send invoices, however, might make them less likely to respond to potential emergency situations when it makes sense for them to do so.

As long as search and rescue is generally designed to be at no cost for rescued parties, perhaps it would be useful for systems to be adjusted so that local authorities conducting rescues could more easily tie into the national framework. In this case, for instance, the Queenstown Lakes District Council would not attempt to charge the rescuers, but would instead apply back to the Police or ACC to have the bill paid out of pre-existing budgets that can absorb it more easily, on the grounds that they made a decision to investigate the likely possibility of a person in imminent danger. Otherwise I think we may as well go the full distance and make it clear that people need to pay, or take out insurance, or whatever.

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