Inevitably as the media coverage of our rescues increase the cries for “Charge that idiot!” increase. On the surface this seems like a good solution – it would deter people from getting lost, and help fund SAR. Like most things – it is not quite so simple and the knee jerk reaction of charging people for rescue is actually a terrible idea. So why is it a terrible idea?

First off almost every SAR team or organization – volunteer, military or government does not believe charging for rescue is a good idea. This should give you an indication that this probably isn’t a good idea. But lets explore it anyways.

There is sound research behind these policies including that charging for rescue does not actually reduce rescues – it also endangers subjects and rescue crews, and increases fatalities.

On the surface it does appear that this would be a deterrent but it doesn’t work this way in reality.

If people believe they will be charged – people who are in need of rescue don’t call, call too late, or in some cases hide from crews because they think they will be charged. This results in increased fatalities, increase in danger to rescue crews and increase in danger to the person needing rescue. Delaying calling creates a much more dangerous and time sensitive situation that turns what could be a straight forward rescue into a very complex call. So then, what if you say – who cares about these people – they are idiots. While I would disagree with you on that one – most people are not idiots they just make an honest mistake. Lets say for arguments sake that this is the case – they are actually idiots.

So if someone is heading out for a hike/bike/climb/snowshoe/insert activity here – are they thinking they might need a rescue? No of course not – no one ever thinks this (especially if you are an “idiot”). So they do not consider whether they will have to pay for a rescue or not. Hence – this is not a deterrent.

If someone were to need rescue multiple times, and they were fined multiple times, then they would probably think about the fine – similar to how I think I should probably go the speed limit so I don’t have to pay another $280 fine (but that’s another story). 99% of people only ever need rescue once – they learn their lesson – usually because they think they are going to die – and I can assure you thinking you might die is a pretty good way to learn a lesson. If we slap them with a fine – this will not affect their future behavior. They have already experienced a severe natural consequence to their actions – they do not need a logical consequence aka a fine (discussion of natural vs. logical consequences here).

Ok – lets say you don’t believe that, and we say screw it – lets charge that idiot. You now need a system for billing and collecting the money. Most people do not have the funds to pay for a rescue – we are pretty expensive. So now you must send the debt to collections, or sue that person – which all costs money. Most cases in the US where people have been charged the organizations have been unable to recover costs as people are not able to pay. I don’t know many people who have $50k to cover helicopter costs. Just like I don’t know many people who have $50k to cover that life-saving surgery they needed.

So – we have shown that charging for rescue does not create a deterrent, it increases fatalities, increase danger to subject and rescuers, and when it is enforced – organizations rarely actually get the funds. So this idea just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Finally – why do people care so much about this? Because it is in the news – and gets a lot of coverage because it makes a good news story. I would guess that one weekend in Vancouver dealing with drunken people has a much higher cost than our entire annual budget. The cost for policing, providing ambulance and fire response in the city for drunken party goers in one weekend has to be pretty huge – have you seen Granville Street on a Saturday? Why are we not calling for people to be charged for this? Because it is an everyday occurrence that is not in the news and its just part of our health care system.

We are a nation that believes in national health care and helping those in need.  I think this belief of helping our fellow Canadians in need should extend to wilderness SAR as well.

Are there other methods of funding SAR? Yes definitely – there is military SAR, there is SAR paid for by insurance, there is government funded SAR. These are all methods worth exploring.

As well, we should be having conversations about the funding for BC Parks and AdventureSmart – as these programs help prevent people from needing SAR. So discussions around organizations or programs that provide education and preventative programs and how we can fund these as well should be had. We encourage people to come to BC and enjoy the great outdoors, but we should also be providing some education and preventative services along with that message.


Some more articles on the subject –

Mountain Rescue Association statement on charging for rescue.

Who Pays for Search and Rescue?

Backpacker Article on Paying for Rescue


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