Monday, December 18, 2006

The search for climbers missing on Oregon’s Mount Hood is costing the county government there up to $6,000 per day, but national search-and-rescue leaders say that is just a fraction of the total costs of such a mission.

“Anytime you get involved with using heavy helicopters [in a rescue effort], the cost can run you as much as $5,000 an hour, and I understand they have been using three large helicopters in this search,” Randy Servis, president of the National Association for Search and Rescue, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

He said this highly publicized nine-day search for three climbers — one of whom was found dead Sunday — on the 11,239-foot mountain has renewed debate over whether subjects of a search or their survivors should reimburse governments for the costs of the search, if those missing were involved in a risky activity.

“To mountain climbers, this is not an extreme sport, but to someone sitting in Alexandria [Va.], it probably would be,” Mr. Servis said. “When you get involved in a multiagency, multiday, multidiscipline event, the costs can go to the extreme.”

He cited an unsuccessful 11-day search in June for two women missing on Mount Foraker in Alaska’s Denali National Park that cost $127,000.

“It’s most typical that government bears the cost of search and rescue,” said Chris Brewster, president of the nonprofit United States Lifesaving Association. “It’s unusual when people are billed for such services. And there is a fine line here between allowing people the freedom to be adventurous, and creating an undue burden on others” in terms of costs and safety issues.

The Maryland Natural Resources Police, in documents released in August, said it spent $76,000 on salaries, overtime pay and fuel costs during its nine-day June search for the body of Philip Merrill, publisher of the Annapolis Capital newspaper and Washingtonian magazine. Mr. Merrill disappeared from his 41-foot boat after he went sailing alone on a windy day. Police determined he committed suicide with a shotgun.

That $76,000 total does not include costs incurred by other agencies involved in the search, such as the U.S. Coast Guard. Cmdr. Jeff Carter, a Coast Guard spokesman, said that agency does not charge for searches, except in cases when it receives “false distress calls.”

Media attention has an influence on search efforts, Mr. Brewster said.

“There is no question that as attention to an incident increases, potential costs rise as well, because of the pressure brought to bear on agencies overseeing the rescue,” he said, and this sometimes means a “distorted amount” of search efforts.

But Mr. Servis said, “Generally, 90 percent of all search and rescues rely on volunteer resources.”

Volunteers are doing most of the searching on Mount Hood right now, said Monty Bell, past president of the 3,000-member Mountain Rescue Association.

At this time, Oregon is one of only two states that have laws allowing them to seek recovery of search-and-rescue costs. The other is Colorado. In addition, one jurisdiction in Utah — Grand County — is allowed to seek recovery of search-and-rescue costs, Mr. Servis said.

Oregon enacted its law in 1995, after taxpayers shelled out $10,000 to find three college students who disappeared on Mount Hood without a cell phone or radio locator beacon, They turned up safe in a warm tent.

Deputy Gerry Tiffany, a spokesman for the Hood River County Sheriff’s Office, which is coordinating the search for the missing mountain climbers, estimates the search is costing the county between $5,000 and $6,000 a day. But he told USA Today that Oregon only enforces the search recovery law “when people do really dumb things.”

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