Who pays when a daredevil needs rescue?

Jan 7, 2013

The search for a skydiver who went missing near Mount Si last week has been called off for now.

The King County Sheriff’s office says they’ve scoured every angle of the area where he might have landed that they could get to on foot. Foggy weather is preventing their next move: taking a helicopter into the cliffs and ravines where the missing man could have taken shelter if he survived.

But who pays for such rescues?

Florida resident Kurt Ruppert went missing Thursday after a jump into the Cascade foothills from a helicopter at 6,500 feet. He was attempting to soar in a squirrel-like wing suit in the popular skydiving area, east of Seattle.

Search and rescue teams scoured the immediate vicinity of his jump  for signs of his parachute, for four days.

“We searched about a 9 square mile area and at this point we’ve run out of areas to search that we can get to on foot,” said Cindi West,  with the King County Sheriff’s Office.

She says if the weather improves, the search will resume, this time in hopes of spotting him from the air. That would cost a lot more. The ground search has been a mostly volunteer effort.  West says 386 volunteers pitched in to cover those 9 square miles, along with 3 to 5 sheriff’s deputies over four days.
But she says, if the search resumes, the county will pay for the helicopter. And they don’t want people to worry about it.

“What we don’t want to do is discourage people from calling us. We have had cases of that in the past, where people have been hesitant to call us when they were lost or hurt, because they thought they were going to get charged.” 

She says the majority of the time, search and rescue is a low-cost effort to help ordinary, well-prepared people who take a fall or get hurt by accident, The volunteer hours and equipment used to save them more than matches government costs.

State law does allow private recreation areas to levy steep fines against backcountry skiers, if they blast past boundaries and need rescue when they get lost or injured.   

And some states, including New Hampshire and Oregon, have rescue repayment laws, allowing authorities to issue fines for negligent behavior. But they aren’t issued very often, compared with the hundreds of incidents that happen annually and the hundreds of thousands spent.

A proposal for reimbursements in Washington was discussed in a legislative committee in 2009, but never made it to a vote by lawmakers.