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Who pays for search and rescue operations?

Paying for Search and Rescue

Who ultimately ends up paying for search and rescue (SAR) operations depends on many factors. If it's the Coast Guard or the National Park Service (NPS), then they pick up the bill. Or rather, the taxpaying citizens of the United States do. Neither agency has a policy for charging for SAR missions. The concept of billing outdoor enthusiasts who put themselves in harm's way is controversial, but on the national radar. The National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) is made up of more than 10,000 volunteers along with paid local, state and national rescue professionals. Founded in 1973, the official position of the group is that billing for SAR operations should be avoided, although it remains up to the local jurisdictions involved in the mission.

The NPS offsets the costs of SAR operations with the money brought in by the fees paid by millions of park visitors each year. The money spent in a single year on SAR ends up costing about 1.5 cents per park visitor [source: Fagin]. Whenever the military is involved, the costs are generally counted as training dollars since there's nothing like a real-world scenario to ensure that personnel are at the ready and in practice.

When it comes to local and state expenses, there have been some changes in recent years. Several states have passed ordinances that allow the county or state to recoup costs associated with rescue, depending on the scenario, and they've done so in some high-profile operations. The states of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont are all allowed to recover funds, but so far only New Hampshire has made great efforts to do so. The law in New Hampshire had already been in place for about 10 years when legislators changed the language from charging for rescue in cases where the victim was "reckless" to "negligent." Debate has been inevitable because there is no set definition of negligence.

In Colorado, outdoor enthusiasts are encouraged, but not required, to purchase a CORSAR card. It stands for Colorado Search and Rescue Card and it ensures that a cardholder won't be charged for SAR operations if they need it. It costs a mere $3 per year and the funds go to reimburse local and state SAR teams and fund training and equipment. In Europe, you're on your own with costs for rescue, but many outdoor enthusiasts purchase special insurance that covers costs if a rescue is needed.