Monday December 17, 2012

CONCORD, N.H. -- Hikers and others rescued in New Hampshire’s backwoods would pay several hundred dollars in fees to the state to help dig the search and rescue fund out of the red under new legislation.

House Republican Leader Gene Chandler has filed a bill based on a year-old study that proposed a variety of ways to raise money, including a fee paid by people who are rescued. The amount of the fee could be on a sliding scale based on the cost of the rescue. The study suggested a range of $350 to $1,000 per incident.

Chandler, who lives in Bartlett, is being joined on the bill, which is still being drafted, by Senate Republican Leader Jeb Bradley, an avid hiker from Wolfeboro, and Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat.

Bradley said he is tired of seeing ill-prepared hikers in sneakers and jeans on snow-covered trails who look to the state to bail them out if they get into trouble.

"If you’re getting rescued, there should be an expectation you’re going to participate in the cost of that rescue," he said.

They said a flat $500 fee also might be a starting point in finding a way to supplement funding for the rescues. They also are considering a card similar to one in Colorado that hikers buy as a way to help reimburse government and volunteer groups who conduct the search and rescue missions. Bradley said one idea is to not charge the rescue fee to people who buy the card.


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"It’s sort of a get-out-of-the-woods-free card," he said.

Recent rescue costs ranged from about $200 to more than $50,000, Fish and Game Maj. Kevin Jordan said. He said hunters, anglers, boaters, snowmobilers and all-terrain vehicle riders pay 100 percent of the rescue costs through license fees but averaged only 14 percent of the rescues since 2006. Hikers pay nothing toward the agency’s search and rescue fund but averaged 57 percent of the rescues, Jordan said.

"It’s not fair for the sportsmen to pay a fee who have nothing to do with hiking," said Chandler.

Fish and Game conducted 954 search and rescue missions over the past six years that cost $1.8 million, said Jordan. The agency has operated at an average annual deficit since 2006 of $101,446, he said. He has not had money to replace the snowshoes, ropes and other equipment his teams use for eight years and worries someone will be hurt or killed if the equipment fails.

"For 20 years, we’ve asked for a $200,000 (annual) contribution to that account and we’ve yet to get one penny," he said.

In 2008, the state made it easier for Fish and Game to try to recoup costs if the rescue is due to negligence, but Jordan said the agency only recoups about 64 percent of the costs of rescues caused by negligence and the attorney general’s office gets half of anything it collects. From 2006 to 2011, the agency billed $83,025 for 38 missions and collected $53,317, he said.

The state does not bill for rescues if an investigation finds no negligence.

The cost of some rescues also has gone up due to a policy change in 2011 by the National Guard Bureau in Washington that directed the New Hampshire National Guard to recover its costs for participating in the missions. The Guard had covered the costs of using its helicopters and staff in the past with its training budget.

The cost to fly its two Black Hawk helicopters costs $4,400 per hour for one and $5,600 per hour for the other not counting personnel costs, said Maj. Greg Heilshorn, New Hampshire National Guard public affairs officer.

Heilshorn said a rescue this year to transport an injured hiker from the Presidential Range mountains to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon took just over two hours and cost roughly $12,000. The Guard flew five missions in 2011 and has flown five this year.

Jordan said he just received a bill from the Guard for over $37,000 that he does not know how he will pay.

Heilshorn said if the Guard is needed to save a life, it won’t hesitate, but Jordan said he now has to weigh the costs of involving the Guard in missions due to the cost.

"We use that service when a life is in the balance, when someone has had a heart attack (on a mountain) and won’t survive a carryout," said Jordan.

Jordan said he does not understand resistance to charging for rescues since the hikers carried off the mountains are met by an ambulance that charges them as does the hospital they are taken to.

"We don’t want to bill anybody for anything, but on Monday morning all these bills have to be paid. We have to look at it as a business," he said.