Who pays for search and rescue operations?

The Cost of Search and Rescue

A rescue like this could cost you if you get stuck in New Hampshire.
A rescue like this could cost you if you get stuck in New Hampshire.
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

The price tag of typical search and rescue (SAR) operation is anything but typical. It all depends on the scenario. Some rescues only take a few hours, and some volunteer manpower. Others involve high-altitude helicopters, rescue boats and teams of paid employees over the course of several days. Consider that the average cost to power a standard helicopter is about $1,600 per hour and you can see how the costs can mount in a hurry [source: Sharples].

The United States Coast Guard is the leader in SAR operations, coming to the assistance of an average of 114 people per day at a total cost of $680 million annually [source: Fagin]. A Coast Guard patrol boat costs $1,147 per hour, and if the rescue requires the use of a C-130 turboprop plane, the bill increases at a rate of $7,600 an hour [source: Sharples]. These are only the hard costs associated with operating the various rescue tools. It does not include man hours or money tied to the training of the personnel.

The National Park Service (NPS) is another agency heavily involved in SAR operations. In 2007, the NPS logged almost 3,600 incidents of search and rescue, 136 of which resulted in fatalities [source: Repanshek]. This resulted in almost $5 million in associated expenses. Other sources put the average number closer to $3 million per year. Whether it's closer to three or five million dollars, it's clear that the NPS shells out a lot of money to bring people to safety each year.

Other SAR missions around the Unites States are carried out by local sheriff's offices, which are typically a mix of county employees working in concert with a staff of unpaid volunteers. But even if most of the manpower comes from unpaid do-gooders, there are always hard costs that cannot be avoided. The Coast Guard, National Park Service and all law enforcement agencies are ultimately funded by tax payer dollars. So is the cost of rescuing people in peril passed along to the average citizen? We'll get to the bottom of that question on the next page.