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Should Reckless People Pay to Get Rescued?

At least three states allow localities to charge citizens for what can be dangerous and expensive rescues that occur when recklessness is involved.

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A FEMA Urban Search and Rescue worker brings a boat through flooded areas that were being searched for residents needing assistance in areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA
When April flooding caused the water level in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., to rise above 21 feet, local officials declared a state of emergency. Bridges were closed; buildings were evacuated. But some people treated the announcement as an invitation to kayak and jet ski on the city’s swollen Grand River. Ultimately, firefighters had to rescue several stranded residents from the water.

Two Michigan lawmakers want to make sure that such thrill-seekers in the future would have to cover their own rescue costs. After all, the Michigan floods are only a recent example in a string of incidents nationwide involving fires, hurricanes or some other imminent natural disaster. Every time, it seems, some residents simply refuse to heed evacuation warnings, often leading to dangerous and expensive rescues.

At least three states—Idaho, Maine and Oregon—already allow local agencies to bill for rescues when certain factors, such as recklessness, are involved. Other places are considering similar measures. A California lawmaker has promised to bring up the issue during the next session. Wyoming’s legislature considered a similar penalty this year, but backed off after emergency responders said the change would discourage people from calling for help.

The Michigan proposal would require individuals to pay back municipalities if risky adventures during a state of emergency require a rescue. “It’s tailored narrowly enough so it’s not going to discourage the average citizen from calling 911 if they need help,” says Rep. Brandon Dillon, the bill’s chief sponsor. “But it will make people think twice before going out and engaging in the activity on the front end.”

Several of the bill’s early co-sponsors, including Dillon, who is a Democrat, and Rep. Rob VerHeulen, a Republican, previously held local government posts in Michigan, which may explain their concern for strapped municipal budgets. Because of summer recess, the Michigan legislature isn’t likely to consider the proposal until this fall, but VerHeulen is optimistic. The measure should garner bipartisan support, he predicts, because “all spectrums say, ‘Well yeah, local government budgets are tight. Act with some degree of good judgment.’”

In Orange County, Calif., two hikers admitted to police that they were on hallucinatory drugs when they got lost this spring in a canyon, prompting a helicopter rescue that cost the local fire authority $55,000. The county considered charging the pair for their rescue, but ultimately determined it didn’t have the statutory authority. Now a lawmaker from the area wants to revive an expired state statute that charged individuals up to $12,000 for extraordinary rescues caused by reckless behavior. The new version of the law would eliminate that cap, so governments could recoup the entire cost. “Government is there to provide emergency services for those who are injured by accident, not reckless or intentional behavior,” says Todd Spitzer, an Orange County board supervisor. “I have serious problems that government and taxpayers are on the hook for that.”

This article was originally published by Governing.

J.B. covers a number of beats including immigration, gun control, politics and more for GOVERNING magazine.