Despite recent calls by some to charge uninjured recreationalists who call for help for the cost of their rescue, local search and rescue volunteers have historically opposed the idea.
When the three Andrews-Sharer sisters got lost in the Gros Ventre Wilderness in July, several community members questioned whether their family should help foot the bill for the two helicopters used in their rescue.
More recently the Christu brothers from Palm Beach, Florida, lost their way when climbing the Middle Teton and were too exhausted to climb down. Again, community members questioned whether the two should receive a bill, with several calling outright to make the brothers pay.
Legal precedent suggests that even if the park or the county wished to charge for rescues, Wyoming law doesn’t allow them to bill the people they assist.
The most recent attempt to change that failed two years ago in the Wyoming Legislature, a failure that had the full support of Teton County Search and Rescue.
The bill, 2013 House Bill 35, was introduced by Rep. Keith Gingery R-Jackson. It would have done two things: allow rescuers personal legal immunity from lawsuits and allow sheriffs to file a claim for the cost of a rescue if they deemed it necessary.
“Any county sheriff’s office in this state may file a claim in a court of competent jurisdiction against a person who is the subject of a search and rescue operation for reimbursement of costs directly incurred in the performance of search and rescue activities,” the bill read when it was introduced.
The bill was inspired by the desire to cut down on users abusing the system without consequence, Gingery said.
“We were trying to get at those cases where the people had abused the system,” the former representative wrote in an email Monday. “For example, calling for rescue when none of the people were in danger, but they wanted help getting their snowmobiles unstuck.”
There was just such a case in Teton County in 2009 when some snowmobilers called for assistance with their machines. That case is the only time Teton County Sheriff Jim Whalen has attempted to collect payment from the subjects of a rescue mission.
However, that section of the bill was deleted almost immediately after the bill entered consideration in the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee and never made it to the House floor.
Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff, R-Jackson, Gingery’s fellow member of the Teton County legislative delegation, was one of those who most strongly opposed the reimbursement option.
“The argument from the local SAR was that people would hesitate to call 911 if they thought they might get charged,” Gingery said.
At the time the bill was in the Legislature, Sheriff Whalen worried about the idea and said that even if the bill passed, Teton County would continue to operate as it had before.
“I’m duty-bound and statute-bound to go and get them, but should I be billing them?” Whalen said at the time. “We don’t want people to not call because they’re worried about getting a bill. We don’t want people to wait until the 11th hour to call because they’re worried about the cost.”
When Whalen attempted to collect $13,000 from the stuck snowmobilers, which inspired Gingery’s bill, their lawyer successfully argued that Whalen did not have that legal authority.
Currently most rescues are reimbursed from either state funds, in the case of Teton County Search and Rescue, or federal funds, in the case of the National Park Service.