The search for two snowmobilers stranded in whiteout conditions near Blowout Mountain over the weekend has some people bringing up the issue of charging people who need to be rescued, or requiring an insurance policy of some kind to cover costs in the event of an accident.
Between 40 and 50 searchers participated in the search for the snowmobilers. One crew member was hurt in a fall as the searchers battled the elements and darkness to reach the couple, who were brought to safety on Tuesday morning. Nobody was seriously injured.
Last month, the search for a skydiver who disappeared Jan. 3 in the Cascade foothills wound up involving hundreds of volunteers who chalked up 3,500 hours of total search time.
The King County Sheriff's Office also deployed its Guardian 2 helicopter helped search the rugged country near Mount Si.
Washington's mountains, lakes, forests and ocean waters attract plenty of recreational users. But small groups of adventure seekers, some of whom engage in what some would call "extreme sports," also make use of these natural wonders, deliberately risking their lives.
In February of 2012, a group out skiing in the back country of Stevens Pass was hit by a massive avalanche. Three people died.
Last November, a mountain rescue volunteer nearly died on Mount Rainier when he fell off a cliff while searching for two snowboarders who had spent two nights stuck on the mountain.
Washington state law holds county law enforcement responsible for providing search and rescue operations, but several other states are considering legislation to bill adventurers who get into trouble and need help.
In Wyoming, a bill under consideration would let local law enforcement charge for search-and-rescue missions in cases where they believe the victims put themselves in harm’s way.
Grand County, Utah, has a list of fees on its website for search and rescue operations. A "small incident" (less than three hours with six or fewer responders) would cost $250, while a "large incident" requiring more than three hours with seven or more responders would cost $750.
The only law in Washington remotely similar is one that imposes a $1,000 fine on skiers who ignore clearly marked off-limits areas.
Search-and-rescue groups say charging for rescue puts the lives of victims and their rescuers at greater risk and actually increases the cost and man hours required.
“There is the belief that if people had to pay they would behave differently; no they wouldn't,” said Glenn Wallace, Public Information Officer with King County Search and Rescue, an all-volunteer organization that works under the direction of the King County Sheriff’s Office.
“But it will make them delay calling 911, which increases the risk and urgency of the mission, both to the subject and rescuers,” said Wallace.
Wallace points to an incident last June when a group of five hikers got lost on a day hike to Mailbox Peak near North Bend. Trouble began when dusk settled on the group from Oak Harbor.
They became lost and then separated during their descent. They delayed calling for help because they were afraid they would be charged thousands of dollars.
“If they had called us at 6 p.m. we would have gotten them out by 7:30,” said Wallace.
Instead, the group ended up spending a cold night on the mountain.
“For us it's all about the lead time,” said Wallace. “The longer someone is out, the less endurance they have."
Wallace said the actual cost to the taxpayer is minimal versus services delivered. Most missions require one deputy as incident commander.
“They direct the efforts, we provide the manpower,” said Wallace. “The services provided come from the volunteers. The county doesn't have the money to staff a big search.”
KCSAR, a 501(c)3 non-profit, has 600 trained volunteers. Last year the group conducted 117 missions, racking up 15,000 volunteer hours – excluding training. In addition to working on search and rescue, they help with crime scene searches and are called to help search for missing persons.
Sgt Cindi West with the King County Sheriff's Office said more than 200 KCSAR volunteers who assisted the search for the skydiver spent nearly 3,500 hours over the four-day period – for free.
“These individuals donate their time, energy and equipment for these missions. Our job is to provide oversight, command and control,” she said.
“We would never charge for a search and rescue mission,” said West. “There are a tremendous number of things government agencies do not charge for. It is part of the service we provide.”
Wallace said the hot button is the cost of a helicopter search.
“The search helicopter uses fuel, but it saves time in the search phase, and reduces risk to volunteers during rescue or recovery phases,” he said. “We think it’s a net positive.”
West said one helicopter was used in the search for the skydiver but it was not used much because the weather was bad.
Wallace said KCSAR has a half dozen of its own command vehicles and the organization receives grants and donations to support its work. The Puget Sound Energy Foundation recently donated $10,000 for a new communications van and $20,000 for communications equipment.
“These tools are critical parts of our team's ability to respond to missions,” said Wallace.
The missing skydiver, 29-year-old Kurt Ruppert, still has not been found. The ground search was officially called off, but on Jan. 13 KCSAR conducted a small-scale search and planned to continue analyzing information its volunteers gathered.
“We don't judge the people we rescue. Everyone makes mistakes, even the well prepared and experienced. And sometimes people have bad luck. Our focus is on helping people in need, just as if they were our mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter,” said Wallace.