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Journal: The Myth of SAR Funding, Part 1

The Myth of Search and Rescue Cost and Funding

Here is an interesting article about the controversy surrounding the funding of search and rescue operations. I heard the tail end of this story on NPR while driving in to work today. Though the story is centered on a problem in Vermont, the questions of SAR expense and funding always comes up when a SAR operation is perceived as “expensive,” especially for people who are perceived to be “ignorant,” “reckless” and “endangering others.” The use of the quotes because these are perceptions, usually propagated by the media in sensationalized stories but not really based on facts.

I discuss many issues surrounding SAR funding in my books Colorado 14er Disasters and Playing for Real. Here are some myths and facts:

Myth: Search and Rescue operations are expensive.

Fact: Depends on how you define “expensive.”

Several years ago there was a large search operation in the foothills of Boulder for a missing person named Lance Hering. He was reported to have been in a hiking accident: He had tripped on the trail, fell down a slope and hit his head on a stone that rendered him unconscious. His friend and hiking partner Steve Powers ran several miles down the trail for help and by the time rescuers arrived, Lance was gone. He had apparently regained consciousness and walked off in an unknown direction. Boulder County then mounted a large, multi-day search operation in the rugged terrain involving hundreds of searchers, dogs, and even helicopters. The searchers never found Hering because he wasn’t there. He and Powers had staged his disappearance so that Hering could get a head start going AWOL from the Marines.

This SAR operation probably cost more than any other in Boulder County that year due to the length of time (many days) and equipment used (helicopters), so I will claim this example is expensive. Regardless of the fact that it was fraud, this is a good example because once every few years a real multi-day SAR operation of a similar nature takes place. However, because this was fraud, we have a public accounting of the cost.

Hering was eventually found and prosecuted. As part of the legal proceedings, the Sheriff presented a cost accounting of the operation and asked for reimbursement of $32,000. Ok, then that is what expensive is around here (by the way, this cost is nothing compared to the cost of the rescue described here). But if you read the article, much of the cost was due to “overtime wages, fuel for volunteer groups, use of the Denver Police helicopter.” Normally these would not be charged to a victim that actually needed help, but as part of the prosecution of Hering and Powers, the County asked that they be reimbursed.

This is of course fair. However, what would the cost to various agencies have been if there had been no operation? The answer is, about the same. Sheriff officers may not have worked overtime but on the other hand, may have anyway. Volunteer groups may have used the fuel elsewhere. The helicopter is a major expense, but this expense could probably have been absorbed in a training budget or even just a normal operation budget.

Other than those hard expenses, the vast majority of volunteers do this for free, which, by the way, is an excellent and valuable example of local volunteer service to a local community. Equipment wear-and-tear is relatively minimal and the equipment is necessary anyway if you want to rescue anyone.

Hering and Powers either have or are in the process of reimbursing the hard costs of the search which were essentially tax funded. What happened to that money? Were the taxpayers reimbursed? No. We can guess it went into some general fund somewhere in Boulder.

So what was the real cost of this expensive search?

In part 2 I’ll discuss SAR funding.






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