Firefighters wary about billing hikers for rescues

Fire chief: "If they know they're going to be charged, they're going to be less likely to call in. They could put themselves in more danger."


The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

KAUAI, Hawaii — A new ordinance allows the Kauai County Fire Department to bill reckless hikers who have to be rescued.

But Kauai Fire Chief Robert Westerman said it’s unclear whether the department ever will do so.

“We are leery about charging people,” Westerman said. “If they know they’re going to be charged, they’re going to be less likely to call in. They could put themselves in more danger.”

A state statute already allows government entities to seek reimbursement costs for search and rescue operations that involve individuals who intentionally disregard warning signs or otherwise act recklessly.

However, as a matter of policy, none of the county fire departments charges for rescues. That’s because they don’t want hikers and others in trouble to think twice about calling 911.

The Kauai Council voted 4-o to approve Bill 2589, which amends the existing ordinance relating to recovery of rescue expenses, aligning it with the state law. Council members JoAnn Yukimura, Arryl Kaneshiro and Gary Hooser were excused.

Mayor Bernard Carvalho signed the bill Monday.

Currently, there is no policy for the Kauai Fire Department to recover rescue expenses. Westerman said he also doubts if the department could establish the necessary administrative rules to seek such reimbursement.

And it might be against Federal Aviation Administration regulations to do so. Westerman said he is awaiting an FAA ruling on the issue.

The number of helicopter-assisted rescues on the Garden Isle has steadily increased in recent years. In fiscal year 2011, there were 47 rescues, rising to 52 in 2012; there were 50 in 2013 and 57 in 2014.

In April 2014, on the Kalalau Trail, fire rescue personnel rescued 121 hikers stranded by rising waters in Hanakapiai Stream. Rescue crews airlifted 23 hikers out the first day. Two rescue specialists stayed with the remaining 98 hikers until the following morning, when they were flown to safety.

The rescue cost the county $3,560.68 in overtime and fuel expenses, including $2,175.81 in overtime pay for firefighters and $278.46 for police officers. The average cost to operate the county’s Air One rescue helicopter is $450 an hour plus $125 for the rescue crew and $50 for the pilot.

If such costs were passed on to the hikers, then more might attempt to cross Hanakapiai Stream on their own rather than wait for rescue crews, Westerman said.

In February 2013, a woman hiker died after she was washed out to sea while attempting to cross the stream. She was among 54 hikers cut off by the raging stream.

Hawaii is among several states in the U.S. that have a law that allows government entities to recover expenses for search and rescue operations if the person intentionally disregards safety.

Honolulu Fire Chief Manuel Neves said the city has not sought reimbursement for search and rescue operations “because doing so would discourage the public from calling 911 in a timely manner, thus putting themselves and our firefighters at greater risk.”

The number of mountain rescues on Oahu has steadily increased in recent years, from 114 in 2012 to 148 in 2013 and 189 in 2014.

So far this year, the Honolulu Fire Department has performed 86 hiker-related rescue missions.

“A large number of these rescues involve hikers who were poorly prepared, have underestimated the hazards of hiking in Hawaii, overestimated their abilities, or disregarded signs where trails have been closed due to hazardous conditions,” Neves said by email.

Haiku Stairs, also known as the Stairway to Heaven, on Windward Oahu, remains popular with hikers despite being closed for years.

Costs for a helicopter-related rescue mission in Honolulu vary, depending on staff, time and resources. If the Fire Department responds to a mountain or ocean rescue with a helicopter, for example, the cost is approximately $1,900 an hour for the helicopter, helicopter tender, rescue company, two fire companies and a battalion chief.

“This cost is included in the HFD’s current budget and does not represent additional costs beyond normal operations,” Neves said.

Maui Fire Chief Jeffrey Murray also said his department does not seek reimbursement because it doesn’t want to deter people from calling when they are in distress.

Deputy Fire Chief Renwick Victorino of Hawaii County said the department doesn’t request reimbursement costs because rescues are part of the Fire Department’s mission.

Copyright 2015 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
All Rights Reserved

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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