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Law Offices of Ronald W. Rutz
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March 15, 2003: Whose Responsibility are Rescue Expenses?

Q: I recently have seen articles about rescue expenses being the responsibility of the person who was lost. That reminded me of a column you wrote. Maybe you could share that information again with your readers.

A: You do have a good memory. I had forgotten about that column which appeared four and a half years ago, but with the weather warming up, it might be time to revisit the topic.

This summer do not be surprised if some night on the news you witness a disheveled, mud-caked citizen who protests loudly in front of the television cameras that he or she was not lost, or bemoaning the use of helicopters to find him or her. No, the person is not being ungrateful or rude but just trying to minimize a potential rescue bill that could run into five figures, even though the "work" was handled by volunteers who donated their time, expenses, and even their own safety.

The county sheriff normally has the responsibility to look for or to organize efforts to find people who have become lost and the sheriff has the discretion to pass on that expense to the beneficiaries of those efforts, although that normally does not happen. The traditional advice is that if you spend any time outdoors, then it is prudent to protect yourself from this economic hit. How?

If you have a fishing or hunting license, or own and have registered certain recreational vehicles such as snowmobiles, boats, etc., then part of the fee (I am told 25 cents) will be paid into a rescue fund. If you don't want to buy an ATV or a sporting license to be protected, then for $3 dollars a card can be purchased that will do the same thing.

The money goes into a fund and can be tapped by the appropriate agencies for expense reimbursement. But this protection is not all encompassing. Several agencies I contacted pointed out that if the fund is exhausted, rescue costs could still be presented to the "victims" for payment, although again it was emphasized that if a license had been purchased, or a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card had been obtained, the likelihood of such recover attempts would be to remote, unless the "perpetrator" was just terribly negligent in his or her conduct or the actions seemed outrageous under the circumstances.

So if you spend any time in the outdoors, even if you are just out for a Sunday drive over Trail Ridge Road, or visiting relatives, or have young children and are out for a picnic when a youngster wanders away, let alone hiking, biking, bird- watching, or just sitting beside a babbling brook contemplating your image in the water, protect yourself from the unexpected. Also, if you are traveling to a sister state this summer, it might be wise to purchase a similar type of card there also.

Even if the most adventurous outdoor activity you do is poking your nose into your backyard once in a while, consider doing the responsible thing by buying a "hikers" card anyway to build up the fund for those who need financial help, or as a cushion for those who often risk their own safety to be of assistance, and also to help to purchase equipment and train those good Samaritans. Come on, it is only three bucks.

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