It was 11 p.m. one evening in July last year when a couple realized they weren’t going back down the Old Bridle Path. They were with their two children just over a mile from the popular Mount Lafayette hiking trail, about 70 miles north of Concord, New Hampshire.
They had underestimated how long it would take to complete the two mile hike, which AllTrails.com rated “good for all skill levels”. They had been invaded by darkness.
The couple and their children, who were tourists from Florida, did not have flashlights or water and were tired. So they called 911, according to Col. Kevin Jordan of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Four officers found them around 12:30 a.m., gave them water and helped them return to the trailhead, Col. Jordan said.
Now, in what has become a growing trend in many states, New Hampshire plans to bill the family for the cost of the rescue. The total could be $ 5,000, Colonel Jordan estimated. The Florida family could not be reached for comment.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a wave of inexperienced hikers venturing into the great outdoors. And that in turn increased the pressure on search and rescue teams, as well as the costs. Increasingly, states are looking for ways to penalize people who take unnecessary risks. But some wonder if these laws might also discourage people from seeking help soon enough after putting their lives on the line because of an honest mistake.
New Hampshire passed a law in 2008 that allowed it to seek reimbursement if state officials found a rescued person to be negligent.
“We don’t do it very often,” Colonel Jordan said. “It must be something pretty wild, pretty out there. But one thing I’m pretty strict about is not being prepared because these are literally the things that cost lives. “
Five other states – Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Vermont, and Oregon – have similar laws allowing them to charge people for the cost of rescues in certain situations.
Hawaii has two pending bills that would allow search and rescue operators to seek reimbursement for those who strayed from hiking trails or intentionally ignored a warning or advisory and then had to be rescued.
And South Dakota passed legislation to help offset search and rescue costs. In March 2020, Governor Kristi Noem signed Senate Bill 56, allowing relief agencies to charge up to $ 1,000 to each person.
Eric Neitzel, a retired firefighter-turned-drone operator in Arizona who offers his services for search and rescue missions, believes a law modeled on the state’s Stupid Motorist Law should be passed for hikers.
Although rarely enforced, the 1995 law stipulated that if a driver crossed flood waters and then needed assistance, “the expenses of an emergency response are the responsibility of the person responsible for those expenses.”
“Something has to happen,” Mr. Neitzel said. “It’s a bit like regulating common sense.
In June, the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board voted to restrict access to popular hiking trails during hot weather. The action came after the United Phoenix Firefighters Association called for action to protect the welfare of rescuers, The Arizona Republic reported.
Cases of unprepared hikers needing rescue – examples include those not dressing appropriately for the weather conditions or not bringing water on a hot day – have become increasingly common. as more people enjoy outdoor recreation as the pandemic limits other activities, said Mark Doyle, director of New Hampshire’s Division of Emergency Services and Communications.
“These are the kinds of situations that people really, really, literally find themselves sometimes in a cove without a paddle,” Mr. Doyle said.
In Colorado, local search and rescue teams are reporting record levels of requested rescues, with some teams seeing an increase in call volume of 200 to 300%, said Anna DeBattiste, public information manager for Colorado. Search and Rescue Association.
Colorado has introduced legislation to provide more benefits to its search and rescue teams, but has no plans to start charging for rescues.
“If you start the fire in your kitchen, negligently, you are not charged for the fire department to come and put it out,” she said. “We know from experience that people who think they are going to be billed delay the call.”
When the pandemic began, “the outdoors was the only game in town,” said Colonel Jordan. This meant that many inexperienced hikers suddenly found themselves on trails enjoying state and national parks.
Rescues were more frequent on weekends. Now they are happening every day. “What we are finding is that our weekdays are more like our weekends, and our weekends have all become like a holiday weekend,” said Scott Ellis, National Park spokesperson. Service.
Social networks are contributing to the problem. Hikers can post photos of the vistas from the high peaks without recognizing the realities of reaching the top.
“Sometimes people get excited,” said Katie Rhodes, president of Adirondack Mountain Rescue in New York City. “They will be doing a hike that is considered quite difficult and exciting, and they want to share it with the world.” New York doesn’t charge for rescues, but some groups practice preventative search and rescue, educating park visitors about the risks in the outdoors.
Most search and rescue teams in the United States are voluntary organizations, which adds to the pressure, said Chris Boyer, executive director of the National Association for Search and Rescue. The number of rescuers declined during the pandemic because older volunteers and others at risk stayed at home, groups said.
Mr. Boyer’s organization does not approve of billing for relief because if people need help, they should call immediately without weighing the potential cost.
“Those few hours of break could be the time when this person is recoverable,” he said. “So I think we let people call early and early because that means we have a better chance of saving that person’s life, right?” “
And while search and rescue operations are strained, there will always be circumstances when people will need to call for help.
“We’ve all been newbies once and people are going to make mistakes,” Ms. Rhodes said. “They just are. We all do. We are all human.