The Hippo


Nov 21, 2019








Source: Major Kevin Jordan, New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game

More search and rescue news
For information about an upcoming program that focuses on preventing the need for rescues, as well as what to do if you become lost or hurt, see page 33.

Rescuing the rescuers
Hike Safe cards could generate funds for Search and Rescue


 You’re hiking along one of New Hampshire’s scenic mountain trails with a friend. It’s a beautiful day, but it gets dark quickly, and on the way back down you misstep and twist your ankle. You can’t even put pressure on it, let alone keep hiking. So your friend calls the Department of Fish and Game’s Search and Rescue team, and before long responders are helping you off the mountain. You cannot thank them enough. 

Fast forward a couple weeks. Your leg is healed and you’re doing just fine — until you get a bill for two or three grand from Fish and Game to cover the costs of your rescue. 
Currently the department doesn’t bill most of the people it helps throughout the state, but that could change if legislation calling for the creation of a Hike Safe card passes the state Senate and gets the okay from Gov. Maggie Hassan. If that happens, people will have the option to purchase an annual hike safe card for $25 per person or $35 per family, which would prevent them from being billed for their rescue. 
The Hike Safe card is an effort to generate money for a department that is in need of its own rescuing. Each year, the state’s Search and Rescue team faces a nearly $200,000 deficit, which Fish and Game officials say is preventing them from doing their job. 
“At this point we’re so desperate I’d take a $10 check. It’s a $200,000 shortfall every year,” said Major Kevin Jordan, assistant chief of Fish and Game law enforcement. 
The cost of rescues
Every year the New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Search and Rescue Department (with the aid of highly trained volunteers from local  mountain clubs) completes approximately 170 outdoor rescue missions. 
The rescued take a variety of forms: they are traditional hikers, children or elderly people with dementia who wander into the woods, cross-country skiers, swimmers, or crime victims like Celina Cass, an 11-year-old girl who was found murdered in 2011 after a multiple-day search effort. 
But only 8.6 percent of rescues are the high-stakes, high-cost missions like Cass’s. 
“There’s a number of those on any given weekend that are simple carryouts that add up but don’t necessarily make the front page,” said  Jordan. “They run from $2,000 to $3,000 to conduct, so when you add them all up at the end of the year, that’s what’s drawing the money.”
 Every year the department spends about $320,000 on rescue missions, which are supposed to be paid for from a fund generated by $1 from every snow machine, boat and ATV registration, but that only adds up to about  $180,000 annually. When the funds run dry the department dips into the Fish and Game general fund. That is supported by licenses and registrations meant to pay for other Fish and Game responsibilities like maintenance, land conservation and employee salaries. 
“Theoretically [the general fund] is supposed to be used to support hunting and fishing ... but essentially hunters and fisherman are paying 100 percent of the cost of rescues, so therein lies the problem,” Jordan said. 
Hunters, anglers,  boaters and snow machine and ATV users make up only about 14 percent of total rescues annually. 
“There [are] ... sportsmen who are tired of it,” Jordan said. “They’re tired of their money going there, rather than trails, enforcement, bridges, culverts … so there’s a growing protest from some of these groups.”
In 2008, the state attempted to help Search and Rescue by allowing it to bill  hikers who are determined to have been negligent or reckless for rescue services. Since its inception, the department has billed out for 63 missions totaling $112,785. But billing and collecting are two different stories. 
“We have successfully collected $69,000, which doesn’t really help us a whole lot, and it’s pretty labor-intensive,” Jordan said. 
Searching for funding
Fish and Game is one of only a couple state departments that don’t receive annual state funding from tax dollars or the general fund. State lawmakers are slowly catching on to the department’s money problem. 
Last year, lawmakers established a commission to study Fish and Game’s sustainability in response to increasing awareness of its funding problems. They also granted the department $1.6 million in general funds for the fiscal year 2014-2015 biennium and suggested coming up with a way for hikers to pay for their own rescues.This year legislation to establish Hike Safe cards passed the House and is on its way to the Senate. 
“A number of us have been trying to figure out how to correct this,” said Rep. Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett), one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “This is one idea. It’s not the end all, certainly, and we hope it’s going to be well received.”
If a hiker is rescued but didn’t purchase the Hike Safe card or pay for a fishing license or other Fish and Games registration, they would be billed for the cost of the effort. Money brought in both through the card and through billing would pay for essential rescue items like helicopters, employee overtime, insurance, equipment and training.
Questioning the card
Jordan said the response he has received has been mostly positive. But there has been some concern that the fees make New Hampshire seem inhospitable. 
“There’s a school of thought out there that the State of New Hampshire should support this program because we’re asking people to come,” he said. “They’re giving to tourism out here, so we should make sure they get home safe.”
There’s some concern amongst the state’s volunteer search and rescue workers from local mountain clubs too. John Scarinza, president of the Randolph Mountain Club, said that in theory, the concept of a Hike Safe card is valid, but the current legislation could cause some problems. As is, the bill says that if someone has a Hike Safe card, they would not be billed for their rescue even if their actions were negligent. 
“I don’t want them to have the sense that, ‘Hey I bought this card. I still don’t have my own personal responsibility to be prepared, and somebody’s going to come get me,’” Scarinza said. 
There’s also a question of who would be encouraged to buy a card, he said. For instance, should a grandmother who doesn’t hike but takes her grandkids on a day trip to the Flume Gorge be encouraged to buy one? If she twists her ankle and needs assistance getting out, should she be billed?
And then there’s the perception that hikers don’t provide support for rescues, Scarinza said. While they may not be paying fees, the work they do as volunteer rescuers is invaluable, he said.
“These are all folks from the hiking community who are highly trained and very good at what they do,” Scarinza said. “So that contribution is being made and there’s a tremendous value to that.”
Not enough
Regardless, even the bill’s supporters are looking at the Hike Safe cards as more of a supplemental source of revenue. 
“This isn’t by any means a solution to the funding problem for Search and Rescue,” Chandler said.
Jordan anticipates it will bring in about $5,000 to $6,000 a year — not nearly enough to close the gap.
“I can tell you, we will be taking some pretty drastic steps soon … and it’s pretty frightening,” Jordan said. “Things like stop doing search and rescue in the White Mountains, where it’s federal land … and we don’t want to do it. We’re not looking to get out of this. We’re just looking to support it.” 
As seen in the March 20, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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