In 2016 I took part in a search for a hiker who had been missing for 3 days. The rainforest he was lost in had many hazards that could be dangerous to someone out by themselves. Temperatures dropped below 10°C (50°F) at night and he had no warm clothes. And with medication he relied upon not on him, survival experts had already put his chances of survival as quite slim.
So it was very surprising when he walked out by himself, 5 days later, in excellent mental and physical condition. It didn’t take long for the police to come forward with more information.
In what followed, police searched nearby hideouts in an effort to gain more evidence to decide whether his story had been genuine or a hoax.
Being involved with the search, we had been briefed by police and had a fair bit of information the public didn’t have. And based on that information, I would personally say it was all staged in an effort to make some money off the story. Too many things just didn’t add up.
But you know what? I would do it again in a heartbeat, no hesitations. But I will get to that later.
My First Time Searching for a Missing Hiker (and what I learnt)
It’s OK to Turn Around! How Being Honest in the Outdoors Can Save Your Life.
So onto the big question, the one that is always on everybody's mind when a rescue hits the news:
Should people pay for their rescues?
ARE ALL RESCUES EQUAL?
What is the difference between one emergency and another? They aren't black or white, and they are not all the same. While most are authentic calls for help from unlucky situations, many are also caused by inexperience or outright ignorance.
Defining them into categories, we could look at them like this:
► Authentic- experienced individuals with an accident or environmental cause for rescue.
These rescues revolve around people that know what they are doing, but have an unlucky accident or environmental hazard that has put their lives in jeopardy. Having all the right equipment and experience, it can often be a case of ‘wrong place wrong time’. Other times, they may have pushed their limits too far and end up requiring assistance.
► Authentic- inexperienced individuals with an accident or environmental cause for rescue.
Often times, inexperience can play a big part in a call for emergency assistance. Missing crucial gear or lacking skills can be the cause. Often, this may not have been completely obvious to the people before starting their trip. Signs and warnings abound for this reason. And it should be noted that even experienced people can fall in this category. Sometimes, we just get out of our depth trying something new. The more adventure activities we are involved in, the higher our confidence is when starting a new one, and this can lead to some situations when we need help.
► Unnecessary rescues.
The amount of calls for help increases as more people head outdoors, but many of these can also be attributed to a lack of understanding in what is involved when calling for assistance in the wilderness. As an example, paramedics in urban environments are now spending most of their days, frustratingly, attending ‘emergency’ calls such as; excessive dandruff, a cut lip, child eating too much cheese, or a sick family pet as examples. And in the outdoors, it’s also mirrored with people setting off PLB’s (personal locator beacons) for simply losing the track momentarily, being late for a plane flight or feeling a bit off.
► Fake or hoax rescues.
This last group is very rare, but still a reality that does occur. Take the case of Michael Cuminskey, who was the cause of, or involved in, 3 separate hoax calls resulting in many hours and resources being spent on him. When he appeared in the courts, he was sentenced to 16 months jail.
Harsh penalty or just sentencing?
TO PAY OR NOT TO PAY?
This is the ultimate question. Earlier, I said that despite the search I was involved in being a probable hoax, I would do it again without hesitation.
Because I believe in one simple principle:
We help people now, in the hope they will help us later when we need it.
But what does that have to do with the costs of rescues? Everything, actually.
I think of wilderness rescues like the paramedic services in our cities. We don’t mind our taxes going to funding this service, after all, it’s one we rely upon to be there when we need it. And the same goes for the fire and police department. In most parts of the world, these services are funded from taxes.
We don’t bill a person from the police department if they were too meek in the rough neighbourhood they were walking in and were attacked. We don’t bill a person from the fire department if they accidentally burnt their kitchen from a silly cooking mistake.
So why would wilderness rescues be any different?
No one goes out there wanting to get hurt and needing rescue. People just want to enjoy the outdoors.
Looking through news articles covering rescues, we often see comments saying things like ‘stupid people getting into trouble who should pay for their own rescue’ or ‘that person wins the Darwin award’. And I'm sure you could almost quantify the increased usage of the saying 'let natural selection take its course'.
But we need to look at the broader picture before we pass judgement.
Charging for rescues creates hesitation. People, unsure of whether to make the call or not, can end up in worse conditions needing a larger amount of resources than what was required had they called it in earlier.
And if we charged for rescues, would this only enable the rich to enjoy the outdoors?
Will poor people just have to stay at home then, missing out on all the benefits of being outside? I’m sure the big shopping centres would love this! In a time where people need to get out of cities and improve their health, this knock on effect of charging for rescues can certainly add to the straining load of lifestyle diseases that is the leading cause of death and illness in the developed world.
People often cite that rescue personnel are facing unnecessary dangers due to rescues. I have yet to meet anyone on search and rescues teams who joined up not knowing any of the dangers. They are specifically trained for it, and importantly, they want to help, otherwise they would not do it. Just like I did on mine.
With many in search and rescue having a background in adventure sports, they are often simply helping the very people they are themselves. Outdoor enthusiasts.
In the urban world, paramedics have to attend accidents of both ignorant and authentic natures in urban environments that are far more dangerous than any outdoor rescue. They are often assaulted and abused while all they want to do is save lives. This is a growing issue and one which should be the focus.
IMPORTANCE OF HUMAN LIFE VS ECONOMIC CONCERNS
When we get down to it, what many of the ‘they should pay’ side are actually asking is: what economic costs can we recoup from a rescue?
Or, ‘how much is a human life worth’?
What makes us unique is our ability and desire to take care of one another. Like I said earlier, we help people now in the hope they will help us later when we need it. Human nature is built on a sense of community and teamwork.
Considering the immense benefits from being outside, shouldn’t we see rescues like all of our other services we reply upon? And instead of focusing on recouping the costs of a few rescues, we could instead put effort into helping people lead healthier lives. Part of fixing this is going outside, it’s good for you!
So let’s help one another now so that the day we need help, someone will be ready to do the same!
What are your thoughts? I’m always interested in hearing what you have to say. Let me know in the comments below!