Western Standard

The Shotgun Blog

« Calgary Dining 2009: Out with the old and in with the new | Main | Western Standard’s Liberty 100 (75-100) for 2008...the final 25 »

Sunday, January 04, 2009

User-pay rescues

Every now and then there is justice and people are punished for being willfully stupid. An example today in the Vancouver Sun:

Three skiers and a snowboarder were rescued this afternoon after ducking under a boundary rope at Grouse Mountain. "Grouse Mountain Safety Patrol made voice contact with the individuals, and despite instructions to return to the controlled recreation area, the four males ignored instructions and proceeded into an extremely hazardous and avalanche prone area," said a press release issued by the mountain... "The group face lifetime revocation of privileges at Grouse Mountain, and will be billed the full expense of the search and recovery effort," the release said. Grouse Mountain donates all costs collected from people who have been rescued back to the North Shore search team, which is staffed by volunteers. The names of the four will also be circulated to all ski resorts in B.C.

If you're wondering, the rescue will cost about $2,500*. BC isn't alone in employing the idiot-pay system. It's in place across the US west and for good reason:

With a modest annual search and rescue budget of about $5,000, Sheriff Eikens is tiring of rescuing people who do not take necessary precautions. Last year, he oversaw the recovery of a snowboarder whose camera-equipped helmet allowed him to film his own death. States that track such data, including Colorado and Oregon, say hikers are actually more likely to need rescue help than climbers. Mountaineers say many in the public do not appreciate such statistics and continue to see climbers as reckless daredevils. Search and rescue expert Daryl Miller, district ranger at Denali National Park, said attaching a price tag to rescues would send the wrong message. At the same time, Denali rangers emphasize that the safety of the park's rescue teams comes first, so they may skip an especially treacherous effort. "Rescue here is not guaranteed," said Miller. "Our motto has been: your emergency may not be our emergency."

It's not uncontroversial. There are two common criticisms of the idiot-pay system, one aesthetic and one reasonable. The aesthetic objection is to the image of the hero demanding payment after rescuing the fair damsel. The hero is supposed to be selfless and to mosey off into the sunset afterward, not sic a collection agency on you. Keep in mind, that idealized hero is a lone volunteer, not a unionized public sector employee with state-funded helicopters, workers compensation benefits and a pension plan. Who is the real victim in these cases anyways? The spoiled brat who skis off the trail in spite of warnings? Or the unionized helicopter pilot who's required to fly in a blizzard? Next is the reasonable objection:

"We believe most rescue activity is a public safety function," said Lloyd Athearn, deputy director of the American Alpine Club. "If I get into a car wreck and the police come to the wreck, I don't get a bill from the police officer for his time. So why should I get a bill from a county sheriff if I need a rescue?"

It's a fair question, though if you flip it around, it brings us to my point. If someone who skis off the trail gets billed for their rescue, why does someone who crashes their car get rescued for free? This man is objecting because it seems that by being billed for their rescues, skiers, climbers and hikers are being singled out. And he has a point. Not that skiers et al shouldn't be billed, but that drivers should be billed -- and not just them.

This could be employed with other so-called victims. Swimmers who go out too far, boaters who don't bring enough gas or who have engine trouble, even people who burn down their house at Christmas because they left their cheap tree lights on too long.

If getting "extreme" on the ski-hill cost me $2,500 I'd think twice -- as I suspect those 4 skiers are belatedly doing today.

Posted by Robert Jago on January 4, 2009 in Sports | Permalink



Actually, to require people to pay for a rescue that they did not ask for is unreasonable. The correct libertarian solution here is to either be willing to make the rescue without charging them for it or not to make the rescue at all. They wandered off on their own, so getting back is their responsibility. To paraphrase Ivan Drago, "if they die, they die."

Now if they disobeyed warnings and then called for a rescue, then they should pay. But otherwise, it's not that we should rescue them and bill them. We should just let them solve this problem of their own making.

Rescues, perhaps, should be like insurance. People could be asked before the go out if they would like to sign up for the rescue package. They will only be billed if a rescue is needed and otherwise, they pay nothing. In fact, they could chose price tags: Rescue only if it costs under $2,500; Rescue if under $10,000; Rescue at all costs, etc. If they decline all options, well, then that's their problem.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-01-04 10:49:20 AM

This is an interesting discussion - I think the difference between a car crash or house fire and the skiers is that the car crash victim would be saved by paramedics/police who are being paid specifically to perform such a task. The ski rescuers had to (...) go beyond the reach of their job requirements, including being exposed to more dangerous terrain than they were used to/trained for. Likewise with services like coast guards - their entire purpose is based around search and rescue operations, so it's expected that they should be rescuing boaters for free unless they go past warning signs voluntarily.

Posted by: Alex T | 2009-01-04 3:46:21 PM

I agree that some functions are expected - the attendance to car accidents by police and ambulance. These people ask us to go above and beyond because they are simply ignorant. I disagree that skiers are being singled out. When you go OUTSIDE the normal boundaries, you are placing yourself into a reckless category. The argument becomes more difficult with some extreme activities such as mountain climbing because the norm is harder to judge. This case is not hard to judge but the subjects won't pay up. User pay is only symbolic and I am sure it has been used many times before without any money coming into gov't coffers. I don't want my tax dollars to pay for the recovery of losers like this but the libertarian approach as stated, is not correct. I like the Darwinian thinking but if the powers that be just let them go off and they were involved in an avalanche, or lost a limb to frost bite or suffered a scrape of any kind, the only questions that would be asked by loser families - WHO KNEW and WHEN DID THEY KNOW! Then brace for a lawsuit in the millions and our tax dollars would be paying the family. Ignoring these guys is not an option for the authorities so lets not pretend that we have an option to decline to rescue. The RCMP is a blood sport for the media and I can just see families lining up to blame them as they are ulitimately responsibly for Search and Rescue operations.

Posted by: Greg | 2009-01-04 6:06:09 PM

If you did something stupid like this in Switzerland (so I read somewhere.....) and needed rescue you'd get a whopper of a bill. The Swiss expect people to pay their own way, the bill typically includes a breakdown of costs that include depreciation on rescue equipment used, fuel costs, emergency workers' salaries, etc, etc.

Why should I pay for this? These jackasses should, heck I saw them them on the news, it looked to me as if they thought it was funny!

Posted by: Dave Tracey | 2009-01-04 7:00:12 PM

Pretty cool spot where they were snowboarding though!

Posted by: Dave Tracey | 2009-01-04 7:01:59 PM

I don't think that the car driver has a right to free rescue and the idiot snowboarder doesn't. Rather, society has decided that providing free rescue to drivers is a "good" that benefits the greater community at a level that outweighs the costs. The idiot snowboarders will have to pay for their rescues because society has decided that the costs to the community outweigh the benefits. Sure, it's a grey area and one can argue endlessly about definitions, but that's why I prefer a legal system that allows for ambiguity rather than trying to codify every possible eventuality.

Posted by: Anonymous | 2009-01-04 8:01:50 PM

The key variable here is the level of irresponsibility. People who take risks by entering "out of bounds" areas should be prepared to pay for those risks (and should be required to sign a waiver to that effect before skiing).

If someone is skiing safely "in bounds," however, and something bad happens, the ski resort should generally be responsible. This arrangement encourages both the ski resort and its consumers to do their part in minimizing risk and ensuring safety.

Likewise, drivers who are using the roads responsibly and happen to get in an accident shouldn't be forced to foot the bill. Maintaining traffic flow and dealing with the occasional accident is part of the legitimate cost of policing a city. Reckless drivers and street racers, on the other hand, should pay for the consequences of their own irresponsibility.

Posted by: Jeremy Maddock | 2009-01-04 8:16:21 PM

The skiers and boarder on Grouse did nothing wrong. They paid for a lift to the top of the mountain crossed the ski areas boundary and, unless they encroached on the Metro Vancouver Watershed, were either on crown land or in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. In their interview they stated that they had the skill and equipment to be in the area, they did not need a chopper. Grouse Mtn. officials over-reacted or wanted to set an example. It's one thing to charge people for back country rescue it's another to force them to be removed from a public area and send them the bill for the removal.

Posted by: Bart | 2009-01-04 8:29:29 PM

When they went up the hill they entered into an implied contract that accepted the limits placed by the operators of the lift. The same is true of a motorist who drives outside the limits prescribed by the motor vehicles act.

Posted by: DML | 2009-01-04 8:47:46 PM

I've just come from checking out the window for flying pigs. I actually agree with Fact Check. Let those who break the rules but ask no help find their own way out of their mess.

As for your car-crash example, Robert, it's not quite the same thing. People who have an accident as a result of an illegal act, such as speeding, dangerous driving, et al, are usually assigned 100% fault and may even be prosecuted, depending on whether it's a criminal or traffic offence. The cop is on duty whether or not anyone has any accidents and he's in little danger of freezing to death or being buried under an avalanche.

Heading out into the bush to rescue some idiot, on the other hand, entails real risk. If there were no risk they wouldn't bother to rescue in the first place, would they?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-01-05 12:14:27 AM

...then comes the sticky thing of when the warning was posted. Apparently the sad turn of events in Sparwood happened BEFORE the avalanche warning signs came up.

And like one poster said elsewhere, most know the danger, and that's part of the trill.

The sad part is when the rescuers become part of toll.

I"m in favour of charging those being rescued. From small kids to moronic adults who are boozed and do it on a dare.

$2500 is a cheap rescue.

Posted by: tomax7 | 2009-01-05 11:30:15 AM

My but folks are missing the point. The solution must surely be to establish a national registry for snow-boards, skidoos et cetera, along with passing a law requiring them to wear a helmet unless they are Sikhs of course.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-01-06 6:04:53 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.