Counties in California opt not to bill each other for the cost of rescuing each other’s citizens
In the State of California, County Sheriff’s Offices have the ability to bill each other for the cost of Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, but choose not to because of a long-standing “gentlemen’s agreement.”
According to Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun, the counties opt to swallow the cost of rescuing people within their boundaries out of a spirit of “mutual aid.” Mono County is not billed when its residents are rescued elsewhere; however, as Mono County SAR President Carole Schultz points out, if Mono County residents are seldom rescued in their home turf. It seems unlikely they’d require it elsewhere in California.
In California, people who have accidents in the backcountry are not billed for the cost of SAR operations launched to facilitate their rescue. Rescues are funded by the county in which SAR operations take place. For instance, San Francisco County would not be billed if a resident of the city were rescued from Mt. Ritter. Instead Mono County accepts the cost of rescuing that person as part of its budgeted annual SAR expenditures.
In California, SAR operations are overseen by County Sheriff’s Departments. Counties have SAR budgets, and Mono County typically spends about $45,000 per year on SAR (whose members are all volunteers), according to Sheriff Braun.
According to Mono County SAR Team President Carole Schulz, Mono County typically responds to between 30 and 50 calls for backcountry rescue per year. In 2016, Mono County SAR received assistance from helicopters on 15 of its missions.
Between 2009 and 2016, only five percent of the people Mono County SAR rescued were locals. Every SAR operation carried out in Mono County (outside of the portion of the County within Yosemite National Park’s borders) is paid for by Mono County. According to data provided by Schultz, helicopters were used in 40 percent of Mono County SARs carried out in 2016. This figure remained relatively constant between 2009 and 2016.
Because SAR is budgeted through the County Sheriff’s departments in California, it is funded not by amenity taxes on hunting and fishing licenses, as in many other states, but by tax dollars.
Braun said that, in Mono County’s 2017-2018 Fiscal Year Budget, $45,275 from the General Fund was allocated toward Search and Rescue. That fund is filled by local tax dollars, and the SAR budget covers rescue vehicles, fuel, and some training for volunteers. The rest of Mono County SAR’s expenses are funded through donations.
Braun called Mono County SAR adequately funded, and said that the operations typically run at or within budget every year.
According to Bridgeport California Highway Patrol (CHP) Public Information Officer Elena Villa, helicopters for SAR operations in Mono and Inyo Counties are deployed from CHP’s Inland Division in San Bernardino, or from the agency’s Valley Division, based in Sacramento.
Fran Clader, Director of Communications for CHP, said in an email that helicopter use for SAR operations is included in the statewide CHP Office of Air Operations budget. He could not provide a figure for how much this service costs taxpayers annually, but said that the burden of that cost is distributed statewide.
Clader said that CHP helicopters facilitated 394 rescues statewide (this number does not include rescues in National Parks) in 2017. Schultz did not have data for SAR operations requiring helicopters in Mono County for 2017, but reported that there were 15 in 2016.
According to Clader, the Inland Division operates two helicopters for SAR. One operates at an hourly rate of $591.73, and the other at $1,044.92.
Chris Boyer, Executive Director for the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), says California’s system for funding SAR is relatively unique. In New Hampshire, for instance, helicopter use must be outsourced to the National Guard, and flight expenses for emergency operations hover at about $2,100 per hour of flight time.
Boyer thinks California’s mutual aid system is the best statewide funding mechanism for SAR operations in the country. Boyer, whose organization provides training and networking opportunities for State SAR coordinators, said requiring victims to pay for their rescues yields poor outcomes in perilous rescue scenarios. “Typically we recommend that people don’t get charged for SAR costs because that means that daily members may be reticent to call someone in as missing. They’ll delay… and the difference of a few hours means that [a victim] has suffered more or is already dead.”
Some states have laws that allow the government to bill people for the cost of their rescue. Maine, Hawaii, Utah, and Oregon have laws that allow this practice, and California, Colorado and Vermont can bill skiers who travel out of bounds at ski areas.
In New Hampshire, the annual cost of statewide SAR operations averaged $360,000 between 2010 and 2012, before the cost of helicopter use, which costs the government about $140,000 annually. Colonel Kevin Jordan, Law Enforcement Chief for New Hampshire Fish and Game said that New Hampshire’s SAR program has operated with an annual deficit of $150,000 to $180,000 since 2008.
In 2008, a law was passed to allow Fish and Game to collect reimbursement from people determined to be negligent in creating a situation where a rescue was required.
Jordan said that, since the law was passed, only about 12 people have been deemed negligent and billed for their rescues, though an average of 180 people per year have been rescued since 2008. Jordan said most people can’t pay out of pocket (the average cost of a SAR in NH for that period was $2,100), but that the measure has not disincentivized people from seeking help when they need it. “If people need help, they’ll get it. It’s like the fire department or any other service,” said Jordan last week of SAR operations.