Senate bill aims to keep search and rescue free of charge

Stock photo by nelik/iStock/Getty Images | St. George News

ST. GEORGE Lawmakers are trying to fine-tune an insurance program that would protect those who get lost, stranded or injured from paying any costs associated with a search and rescue operation.

The bill would also help fund county search and rescue teams stretched thin by increasing visitation in Utah’s backcountry.

Two climbers became stranded for nearly four hours on the side of this rock when their rope became tangled near Pygmy Alien formation, Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Dec. 29, 2016 |Photo courtesy of Darrell Cashin, St. George News

If passed, the Search and Rescue Assistance Card Program Amendments bill, SB 272, would make changes to the Utah Search and Rescue Assistance Card Program, which was established in 2015 but has not yet been made available to the public. The bill is sponsored by Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville.

New language in the bill forbids a county from charging a card-holding participant for rescue services unless the participants “intentionally or recklessly created the situation requiring rescue services.”

Nathan Curtis, Sevier County Sheriff and a member of the state search and rescue advisory board, spoke on the issue in a Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment committee meeting Monday.

Curtis mentioned a case in Grand County in which some people were “attaching a slingshot to the back of their car to launch themselves over a canyon.”

“So this is one of those things where it’s, they’re doing something really, really – that caused a bad problem and (they) should have known better,” he said.

Curtis told committee members that the sheriff of a county would be responsible for deciding if someone’s behavior fit the criteria specified in the bill of being intentional or reckless.

Most Utah counties are not currently charging for search and rescue operations, including Washington County. However, that is at the discretion of the sheriff, Washington County Search and Rescue Liaison Darrell Cashin said.

“The sheriff does not believe in charging people for search and rescue,” Cashin said. “It might stop people from calling when they’re really in trouble.”

Rescuers hiked on foot through steep and rugged terrain to locate lost hiker near Red Mountain trail Friday, Washington County, Utah, Nov. 11, 2016 | Photo courtesy of Darrell Cashin, St. George News

So far, Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher has never charged anyone for a rescue, Cashin said, although he does have that option.

Only one person has been charged in Cashin’s memory – a man who tried to fake his own death before fleeing to Australia.

Cashin supports the Search and Rescue Assistance Card Program.

“It’s a way to support the search and rescue and to know you wouldn’t be charged for it,” Cashin said.

Search and rescue operations in Washington County have gone up every year, he said.

In 2016 there were 85 rescues and in 2015 there were 101. So far this year, there have been 14 – seven of them in the last 10 days as the weather has improved.

With Southern Utah’s rapid growth and increasing popularity with visitors, those numbers are likely the “new normal,” Cashin said.

Currently, Washington County Search and Rescue is funded in several ways, including a yearly allocation through the Sheriff’s Office budget – just $35,000 last year.

Local businesses and civic organizations have also been a big help, donating both money and equipment, Cashin said. All of the search and rescue team members volunteer their time and buy their own vehicles and most of their equipment.

Intermountain Life Flight donates some helicopter time for searches, as do the owners of private airplanes. At the end of the year, some of the costs are refunded by the state, but the amount never covers all the costs, Cashin said.

Search and rescue cards have been offered in other states, and have been successful, Cashin said. “And it’s a good way for people to support search and rescue in general.”

A high angle SAR team member makes his way down the deep cavern in the Bloomington Cave to rescue an ill man Thursday, Washington County, Utah, Nov. 24, 2016 | Photo courtesy of Darrell Cashin, St. George News

“That program would help defray some of those costs so that we don’t have to start looking at any type of a cost-based system,” Cashin said.

“I agree with the sheriff, I don’t want anyone to ever feel like they cannot call search and rescue for fear that it will cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “I don’t want that to ever happen because they’re going to end up in worse trouble, we’re still going to end up out there, most likely, and the outcome won’t be as good.”

The Search and Rescue Assistance Card Program Amendments bill creates the Search and Rescue Financial Assistance Program to manage funds from the search and rescue assistance cards in addition to donated funds and appropriations and would be used to help the state reimburse counties for search and rescue expenses.

People who register ATVs or purchase hunting or fishing licenses would get a discount on the purchase of the assistance card, which is estimated to cost $10-$20.

The assistance card program was established in 2015 but was not made available due to legal concerns, the Deseret News reports.

Hinkins’ bill addresses lingering issues that are preventing its implementation, committee testimony stated.

The measure passed out of committee by a unanimous vote and now advances to the Senate.

Read more: See all St. George News reports on Utah Legislature 2017 issues

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4 Comments

  • Not_So_Much March 7, 2017 at 7:41 pm

    I really don’t like seeing my tax dollars cover this at 100%. User fees should increase to cover the majority of this cost.

  • Pheo March 7, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    Genuinely curious. Why are these lives more important than the lives of sick kids or people with cancer? Guaranteed, the representatives pushing this are supporting repeal of the ACA and against expansion of Medicaid in Utah. Why do we support disaster relief, but real access to health care for all who need it?

    • .... March 8, 2017 at 4:42 am

      Pheo. very simple it’s the American way

      • Real Life March 8, 2017 at 12:08 pm

        Almost bed time party boy!

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