In this HIRSC Exclusive Series - The team takes a look at the topic of billing for rescues. With the recent rise in rescue incidents across the Island of Hawaii following the rebound in tourism, we take a look at this topic from not only a financial standpoint but also from the first responders' stand and also legal issues behind billing for rescues.
So come along for the ride, it’s gonna be a long one.
Published by: HIRSC - Administration and Moderating Team (All Sections)
The Island of Hawaii, it’s considered the hidden gem of the State of Hawai’i. From the steam bluffs at Wahinekapu in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park to the beautiful waterfalls along the Hāmākua Coast, the Island of Hawaii has a lot to offer. While most places are open to the public to access, some decide to venture off the marked trails and get themselves into danger, and needing help from our local first responders.
Unfortunately, these types of events happen all too often around the Island of Hawaii. While many may see it as a public service for those who need help, others will look at it as reckless behavior that endangers our first responders, regardless of the circumstances, and those individuals should pay for the services received. While it sounds like a simple and yet easy solution, there are a lot of other factors or circumstances that play into part in why it’s never sought after in the end.
Brief background of the rescue services available on Hawaii Island
On the Island of Hawaii, the Hawaii Fire Department (HFD) responds to the majority of the rescue incidents on the island, with the U.S. Army Garrison Fire Department at Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA Fire) covering (with HFD co-responding) to incidents in the Saddle Region and National Parks Services covering responses within the National Parks Boundaries on Hawaii Island (with co-response from HFD) and the same goes for the United States Coast Guard (USCG), however, they cover the offshore waters of Hawai’i and to a greater extent the Central Pacific Ocean.
HFD responds to on average of 5-6 rescues (based on HIRSC Scanner Log Stats) per month (averaging approximately 60 to 72 rescues roughly per, sometimes more), while that does seem a little low, another factor you do have to put into play is there are only 2 HFD Rescue companies/stations to cover the whole island, one company at the Waiakea Fire Station in Hilo covering East Hawaii and the other company at the Kailua Fire Station Kona covering West Hawaii, and both stations do have a very large area to cover and each side of the island presents its own set of challenges as far as terrain and weather as well.
While funding for HFD rescue equipment is hard to come by due to financial issues and shortfalls in the budget, HFD is very fortunate that the Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation and few other foundations or funds continue to help and cover the shortfall every year. They purchased not only rescue boards for HFD Ocean Safety Division Lifeguards but also purchased UTVs for Lifeguards and HFD Rescue personnel, training for rescue personnel, a rescue billy pugh net for Chopper 2, and also rescue ropes and harness for technical rescue incidents. Victims of rescue (including family members) have contributed to the Sayre Foundation as a way of saying thank you to HFD for all they do to help protect the Island of Hawaii. (To learn more about the Daniel R. Sayre Foundation, please click here)
Now we take a look at the current laws in place and the stance taken by first responders and also measures that were being sought to change the law.
In the State of Hawai’i, there is currently a Hawaii Revised Statutes (HRS) or Law (called Search and Rescue Reimbursement Act) in place (HRS 137-2) where it allows for first responders to seek reimbursement from individuals rescued if the individual is found to be egregious (or in gross negligence) for the response. While the law is currently in place, only one county in the State of Hawai’i has used that law to seek reimbursement for cost-related rescue services provided and the county is Kaua’i. While they have sent out 4 bills of cost to rescued individuals, it still remains unknown at this time if Kaua’i County has actually received the funds from those bills sent out since 2016.
Other counties, including Hawaii County, have elected not to seek reimbursement from rescue individuals and have reasons why. In a recent fire commission meeting on June 9th, 2021, North Kona Fire Commissioner Benjamin Agdeppa asked the question emailed from the HIRSC Team to HFD Officials on the stance of billing individuals for rescue services and HFD Officials have said they are against seeking reimbursement from an individual who has been rescued by HFD personnel. While the rescue itself is costly (ranging anywhere from $1,500 to upwards close to $3,500 per hour depending on the need for air resources or technical rescue equipment and personnel), HFD says while billing for rescues could be a deterrent to prevent future rescues/events from happening, the repercussions of charging for rescues could be individuals would be reluctant or refuse to call for help (mainly due to the fact they know about the hefty medical bill they may receive and possible citations) when they really need it and seeking help from other individuals instead, by which could put them also in harm's way as well and making for even a more challenging rescue.
However, many community members disagree and say people will still call for help regardless of what situation they’re in.
HIRSC Moderator in Utah, a former search and rescue technician, says that there were many instances (or incidents that he responded to) where injured hikers and even ordinary people have adamantly refused to call for help immediately and tried to get out on their own, knowing the cost behind getting them out to safety and medical care (most of the time they are medically related cost) and it was until another person had called it in hours later. Fortunately, those victims lived to tell the story and were never billed for the rescue, citing that you can never put a price tag on a human life regardless of the situation.
However, HFD has cited that, if the rescue incident involved a private or commercial company tour group, they would possibly seek reimbursement from those companies for such services, since the tour companies are held to standards that include safety of their guests and accessing legal and open areas that they are permitted to access. Another reason (or probably the only reason) where they would seek reimbursement if gross negligence was found or the incident was a hoax, then they would seek reimbursement from an individual or party involved during the penalty assessment in court.
From an individual standpoint, HFD says they would like to focus their efforts to educate everyone including our visitors on the real dangers and hazards to our beautiful island, but also why you should stay on the trail and access areas that are open legally, in hopes of not only preventing rescues from happening but also a tragic incident in the end.
Outdoor adventuring and advocacy groups also agree with HFD Officials on the stance and also ways to prevent rescue incidents in the future is to educate everyone on the hazards and dangers of going off the trail and why it may cost you in some instances, in most cases not only citation for criminal trespassing, but also costly medical bills.
The United States Coast Guard (USCG) and the National Park Services (NPS) are also other agencies that will not seek reimbursement for rescue services from individuals they rescued unless if there has been gross negligence found. USCG Officials have stated the only time they will seek reimbursement for rescue from an individual is when the mission they completed is a hoax. NPS Officials say the only time they would seek reimbursement for rescue services is when there was gross negligence involved from an individual and would seek restitution through the penalty assessment in court.
Recently in the State of Hawai'i Legislature for 2021, senators had introduced a bill (HI SB700) that would've changed the current law wording from "may" to "shall" seek reimbursement for the cost of services provided, should gross negligence be found (or in other words, they would be required to seek reimbursement for services provided). While that bill had a lot of support from not only the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and citizens across the State of Hawai'i, with opposition placed by several citizens, State Fire Council (SFC), and several fire departments in the state, sadly, that bill was deferred in a House committee hearing in March 2021, following concerns brought up by legal advisors on requiring reimbursement.
What would happen if agencies did charge for rescues
While there are laws currently in place that would allow for our first responders to get repaid for rescue services they provided, there is a major drawback to requiring someone to pay for services that could end up costing taxpayers a lot more than the actual services provided.
A couple of legal experts including one of our own HIRSC Moderators say that charging for rescues could actually lead to major legal headaches for the search and rescue agencies/first responders and including local governments as well, meaning that taxpayers would still pay for it in a different way.
HIRSC Moderator stated while he agrees with HFD and other search and rescue/first responder agencies on the stance of charging for rescues could lead to someone not seeking help when they needed it, citing the major cost associated with it, he says that's not the overall answer. The main factor on why they (first responders don’t require it or even want to push for it, in the end) is due to the legal battle or hurdles they face getting those funds and claims that could be filed or brought up against them in court, leading to very lengthy litigation, which could be a very huge and open financial nightmare in the end.
One example he provided is that if an agency requires you to reimburse them for services following a rescue event, they will be mandated or required to conduct a search and rescue operation, even if it was not needed. And if something went wrong during that search and rescue operation (such as equipment failure or rescuers not acting professionally during the incident), someone (including the victim) could file a tort claim against the rescuers and the agency itself, leading to a huge legal mess in the end. These types of claims will be very similar in nature to what the medical field faces in malpractice lawsuits and so forth today.
So what are some measures that could be taken to help offset the cost and also prevent unnecessary rescues?
While the cost of rescues continues to rise every year, some states including foreign countries have sought other options to help offset the burden and cost to search and search agencies for services provided versus billing the victim for the incident.
In the states of Utah and Colorado, they have introduced what is being called a rescue card (sample of the card used in Colorado above). Those in possession of the rescue fund cards are not considered to be insured in any way in the event of a rescue incident, but a source of funding that not only state residents, but also visitors have contributed to help agencies involved with search and rescues incidents cover the cost of not only the rescue operation conducted, but also to purchasing equipment and also use it towards training to help better prepare them for future events.
Individuals or families who have purchased or contributed to the rescue fund card, have in some cases prevented themselves from footing the bill in SAR operations regardless of the circumstances. Although, the cost associated with medical treatment or transport has to be covered by the victim and their private health insurance provider. While both states have said it helps with providing some funding towards SAR training, equipment, and operations, it allows SAR teams to be better prepared for when that emergency does come. COSAR card costs as little as $3 for 1-year and $12 for 5-years. The USARA card costs start at $25 for individuals and $35 for families and jump in price for a 5-year card.
In other states, a similar fund or system is attached to the state's fishing and hunting licenses, which also helps offset some of the costs related to search and rescue operations. Some major U.S. insurance companies also offer a rescue insurance policy for those who partake in outdoor activities and help with covering most costs for rescue services should an individual be billed for.
In Europe, citizens including travelers are required to have a form of insurance for outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, backpacking, etc. to help cover the cost of rescues because they know they will be financially responsible for their own rescue if it’s ever needed. Most of the plans start as little as $35 to 40 and up per month.
While Hawai’i doesn’t have a program or fund in place at this time, officials say they are looking into it as a future option and one way that could offset some costs associated with search and rescue operations. However, if it could become reality, it would be years until such a program is in place for everyone to help contribute to.
DLNR has begun to slowly take steps to try to prevent rescue incidents from happening on State lands by stepping up enforcement in all areas under their jurisdiction. While it's a small step in the right direction, they understand their still a lot of work and effort to enforce the current rules and regulations in place to help keep up with the pace. DLNR says educating and informing the public about many areas is one of their high priorities that could lead to preventing such events from happening.
One measure that HIRSC Team has taken on personally to help in a way preventing rescues from happening is publishing information updates on rescue incidents that happen all around Hawaii Island and making the community aware of the hazards where those rescues had occurred and why the area is either restricted or off-limits to the public, most the information provided on hazards is from our team member's own experience and familiarization of the area. The team is committed to continuing to inform the community of rescue events as a way of raising awareness and also a tracking metric for many areas around Hawaii Island. While most of the community's responses to our rescue post are a bit colorful at times, it's bringing to light the incidents that actually happen out in the community.
HIRSC Team will continue to monitor that discussion on future plans and provide major updates when they become available to us.
So what are some things that we could help prevent a costly rescue from happening
So now you ask yourself, how can I help prevent a rescue event from happening. Here are many ways that you can do to help:
First and foremost, make sure the area you are planning on adventuring into is open to the public or you have legal authorization or permission from the landowner, property manager, or lease-holder.
Do your careful research of the trail or area conditions including terrain and also be aware of any hazards that are present.
Always stay on the marked trail or pathways and obey all warning signs, they are posted for a reason.
Know your own physical ability
Always be mindful of medical conditions you or others have
Do not overexert yourself beyond your own personal ability.
This has been the contributing factor to many emergencies, people pushing themselves too far above their own.
Pack the necessary gear/equipment and supplies for the adventure you’re about to head out. And always pack out what you packed in.
Check the weather or water conditions and see if there are any advisories or warnings that are in effect for the area you're planning to adventure into.
The weather on Hawaii Island constantly changes, always check again before you head out.
Have an emergency contact outside, who has the planned route or itinerary for the adventure and timeline when you are expected to head out and also be back.
Let them know of the amount people in your party or group if traveling with one.
If possible, always provide consistent updates with your emergency contact when possible, if not, make contact with them following the completion of the event.