Hikers yet to pay for calling 911 despite current law

Hiker Rescues

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Honolulu Fire Department crews responding to a hiker in trouble is just part of the job.

On average, HFD racks up about $1,000 an hour for search and rescue missions. But with back-to-back calls this week and weekend to hikers needing help, who should foot the bill?

It turns out, Hawaii is one of a handful of states that says the hiker could end up paying.

“Important policy to be adopted to make sure resources do and should take place, but those who recklessly endanger themselves or first responders should have to pay for that service,” said Rep. Marcus Oshiro (D) Wahiawa, Whitmore Village.

Rep. Oshiro and his colleagues in 1999 passed legislation that allows authorities to charge a hiker search and rescue costs if they intentionally disregarded a warning or notice. But in 14 years, no one has ever had to pay — not on Maui, Kauai, Big Island, or Oahu.

HFD says they aren’t trained to determine if a hiker is reckless or negligent.

“We’re called to help someone in trouble, not to judge what their motive was or circumstance was that brought them to that trouble,” HFD Capt. Terry Seelig said.

Capt. Seelig adds that the cost to do a search and rescue is a public service already budgeted for.

Sen. Will Espero agrees the process may be more work than it’s worth.

“The thought of charging does sound good and looks good on paper, but so may other details that need to be worked out,” Sen. Espero said. “Discussion is who will implement, chase down and make sure these fees are paid?”

Rep. Oshiro says the purpose of the law is to warn those who take unnecessary risks.

“You might want to have ability to get reimbursement and set a lesson for others,” Rep. Oshiro said.

Capt. Seelig worries a charge could cause hikers to second guess calling 911.

“Might fear being charged and look at it as a fine and a dis-incentive to call for help,” Capt. Seelig said.

Hawaii is not alone. Most of the seven states that allow billing for rescues don’t actually charge anyone.

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More information:

§137-2 Reimbursement. (a) Whenever any government entity engages in a search or rescue operation for the purpose of searching for or rescuing a person, and incurs search and rescue expenses therein, the government entity may seek reimbursement from the following:

(1) The person on whose behalf search or rescue operations were conducted, including the person’s estate, guardians, custodians, or other entity responsible for the person’s safety;

(2) A person who ultimately benefited from a search or rescue operation by being rescued; or

(3) Any entity responsible for placing the person in the position of danger for which the search or rescue operation was initiated.

(b) Reimbursement under subsection (a) shall be allowed only if the need for search or rescue was caused by any act or omission by the person searched for or rescued, constituting intentional disregard for the person’s safety, including, but not limited to, intentionally disregarding a warning or notice. [L 1999, c 66, pt of §2]

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