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Whether you're hiking in the wilderness or skiing in the backcountry, there's always a chance you can get into trouble. Thankfully, most counties and states have search and rescue personnel that can help.
But these rescue efforts -- which can include boats, helicopters, and a significant number of professionals and volunteers -- can be costly. So who foots the bill when someone needs to be rescued?
County, State, and Country
As an initial matter, most search and rescue costs are paid up front by the counties, states, and federal departments that employ rescue personnel and supply rescue equipment. The National Park Service says it spends almost $5 million each year on search and rescue (SAR) missions, not including the salaries of rangers assisting in the search.
State agencies can oversee hundreds of rescue missions annually. And if an area falls out of federal or state jurisdiction, it's often up to counties and volunteers to fund the rescue effort. Although most of these costs are out-of-pocket for the agencies that conduct search and rescue, there are ways to recoup these costs.
Statutes, Fees, Lawsuits
Many states have laws that allow the state to bill rescued persons. Generally, however, these only come into play if the person's recklessness or negligence led to need to be rescued. (In national parks, the Park Service can only recover rescue fees if the person violated a park rule.) In addition, some states have begun voluntary "hike safe" card programs to fund search-and-rescue operations.
Hikers, skiers, and boaters in need of a rescue can also be sued, although these lawsuits can be complicated. Some states permit civil suits in rescue situations, though normally only from city, county, or state agencies. The average person has no legal duty to rescue, although the rescue doctrine could allow rescuers to sue if they are injured during the rescue.
If you've been injured and needed rescuing, or injured during a rescue, you may want to talk to an experienced injury attorney.