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March 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 37, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Cost of Search and Rescue Missions

who foots the bill for finding lost divers?

from the March, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In New Zealand in January, scuba diver Colin Smithies was the subject of a massive air-and sea search involving 40 volunteers after he went missing while diving in Dunedin's Titahi Bay. Then two days later, Smithies, 49, strolled into a police station 185 miles from where he was reported missing. Apparently he left Titahi Bay and hitchhiked north, showing up disoriented and distressed. His mental condition did not make authorities sympathetic; they charged him $50,000 for wasting police time and gave him a court date.

While Smithies seems to have played a stupid game, whether to recover costs related to Search and Rescue (SAR) operations has become a big issue in recent years. In many countries, SAR entities now make it standard practice to charge mountain climbers, hikers, snow skiers and snowmobilers if they cause their own emergency. The costs are huge and have a big impact on government budgets, so in the U.S., municipalities and states feel justified in trying to get back their expenses from people who flagrantly disregard their own safety and then expect to be rescued at the taxpayers' expense. Their actions also risk the lives of rescuers who go after them in dangerous conditions.

A Sore Subject for the U.S. Coast Guard

The cost, if actually billed, for a five-day
search for two missing divers off of Cocos
Island would be more than $3 million.

At sea, it's a broader discussion than just "divers," because the responding team also has to deal with evacuations for injuries that occur on vessels, body recoveries, towing emergencies, searches for passengers who go missing, as well as divers who get left behind. It's a sore subject for the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), local police, public safety, marine patrol and water response teams. Historically, such emergency efforts were performed as part of the "mission" of the agency that was first on the response list. In coastal waters (within 10 miles or so of shore), sometimes municipal or town SAR teams made the effort, often with volunteers acting either in concert with official responders or independently when no other resources existed. Local police or marine patrol teams may have a limited staff, and one or two smaller boats to scramble quickly. They may have better local knowledge of the immediate area. But they will usually not have aircraft or experts trained in computer modeling predicted drift paths of persons in the water. Their small staffs will also be limited by on-site hours and fatigue.

The USCG has always been the "go-to" best solution, due to their expertise, communications capabilities, surveillance aircraft, surface vessels and small high-speed boats. In many cases, a proper SAR team needs staff trained in rescue swimming, medical care, specific navigational tracking and predicted location capabilities who use computer models and oceanographic "hind-casting."

Just imagine the cost of an operation that can span days and tie up scores of staff, divert of resources from other missions, have high fuel costs, etc. One SAR operation for two missing divers in 2003 off Cocos Island in Costa Rica involved both the USCG and the Costa Rican Coast Guard. The five-day search covered thousands of square miles. The cost, if actually billed, would have been staggering - - in excess of $3 million.

In Europe, it's a different story. Outdoor enthusiasts are responsible for themselves, and many have insurance to cover costs should they need to be rescued. In the U.S., however, whether you have to pay depends on where you are when you get into trouble. In national parks and in U.S. coastal waters, the government picks up the tab for your rescue. Even if you were to take your own dive boat out into the Atlantic in the middle of a hurricane, and the USCG had to use a 110-foot patrol boat (which costs upwards of $1,100 per hour) or a C-130 turboprop airplane ($7,600 per hour), you wouldn't pay a dime. "If you get yourself in trouble, regardless of the circumstances, that doesn't weigh into any factor in our response," says Captain David McBride, chief of the USCG's Office of Search and Rescue.

It is another story if you run out of gas. Don't expect the USCG to race over to tow you to shore. It will give you contact info for a towing company or put out an alert to good "sea-maritans" who might be able to help you out gratis, but it will only tow you in as a last resort - - and still free of charge. The only time the USCG gets money back for rescues is when it is the victim of a hoax.

Will Federal Deficits Change The "Free Rescue" Policy?

Because of the Federal deficit, will there be changes to the policy on free rescues? McBride says no - - at least not yet. "Every couple of years, some major case has come up and made officials ask, unfortunately, 'Where do you draw the line?' In most SAR cases, the people being rescued were in a position they should not have been in, taking excessive risk by not taking standard precautions or not being adequately equipped. That has been one of biggest difficulties when the consideration [of charging] came up."

Besides the USCG, Australia and England have started to take a serious look at assessing costs, and have done so in some instances. This is mostly targeted at persons or boaters who have acted irresponsibly and essentially created their own problems by imprudent seamanship or bad practices. In the case of diving, much of the USCG's ire has been the result of divers being left abandoned by careless logging of divers on and off the vessel.

Take the Daniel Carlock case that we have reported on (see the November 2010 issue of Undercurrent). He went diving on a boat chartered by Ocean Adventures, a dive shop in Los Angeles. Carlock went with 19 others on the first dive. When he surfaced, he was 400 feet downcurrent from the drifting dive boat. He floated in his inflated BC, blew his whistle and waved a safety sausage, but the crew never saw him and the boat motored away without him. Amazingly, he was erroneously logged back aboard during a roll call by the divemasters. He was not missed until the end of the second dive, and even then he was listed as having participated on that dive. So a USCG-led search was begun at that site rather than where he was actually left. He was found four hours later when a boat carrying teenage Sea Scouts spotted him. (Carlock sued and was awarded $1.68 million last year by a jury in California.)

In remote areas, like Chuuk, "There's
no government anything coming to
look for you."

Of course, governments filing an action to collect their expenses doesn't guarantee recovery from the persons. Officers responsible for marine inspection and oversight to U.S. passenger vessels have let their frustration be known to captains and crew with license suspensions, sanctions, outright revocations, fines to vessel operators, and mandated safety remediation seminars. Expect more vigorous actions in the future since these unwarranted breaches of safety cost extraordinary amounts of money and divert the USCG (and other countries' agencies) from their primary duties.

McBride says don't be surprised if you're presented a bill for being rescued after getting into trouble while diving in a lake or quarry. Colorado, Utah and Oregon have state laws that allow their agencies to charge victims for rescues. With states falling victims to their own budget deficits, the issue of cost recovery could soon be examined by other states.

What Happens Overseas

Outside the U.S., countries like England, Australia, Norway, Sweden, and a few others have excellent similar government and local response capabilities. Australia, for example, has a cooperative SAR plan, involving federal authorities, state police and water police, and support from volunteer marine SAR agencies. The charge to any rescuee, except for pranksters, is nil. "We provide assistance to any person in distress at sea, regardless of the nationality or status or the circumstances in which the person is found," says an AMSA spokesperson.

Craig Stephen, operations manager for Mike Ball Dive Expeditions in Queensland, Australia, says it's not uncommon for AMSA to perform rescues over 52.8 million square kilometers of the Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans. "Australian authorities have vessels throughout the region and work with other nations as situations arise."

But many nations, especially those without traditional maritime industries, lack even rudimentary SAR infrastructure. In fact, most roles of SAR will be fulfilled by private operators or volunteer teams. Though well intended, these efforts will frequently be vastly ineffective.

If you dive in the Caribbean, you can rest assured that SAR missions are often well-coordinated, says Clay McCardell of Explorer Ventures, which has liveaboard itineraries in the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos and Saba. "Many islands we visit have some SAR, although it's mostly volunteer organizations. But the Coast Guard has a major presence in the Caribbean, and if someone sends out a mayday, local dive boats, liveaboards, any boat with a radio will come out to help."

Meanwhile, over on the Pacific coast, Alan Steenstrup of the Undersea Hunter Group of liveaboards says, "I know that the Costa Rican Coast Guard does not necessarily have the resources to do a major SAR at any given time. On some occasions, the USCG might actually be included if they are in the area (and especially if a U.S. citizen is involved), but it will probably be on a lesser scale than if it were to happen in U.S. waters."

In remote areas like Micronesia, it may be a different story. Cliff Horton, business manager for Odyssey Adventures, which operates the Truk Odyssey, says the island-nation of Chuuk has no Coast Guard, "so there's no government anything coming to look for you. Luckily where we are, there's no current, so lost divers don't get far."

How liveaboards handle SAR missions varies from operator to operator. Some have excellent protocols for SAR, with regularly planned safety drills, detailed briefings for both crew and guests, and supply guests with sonic-noise signal devices such as the Dive Alert, emergency locator equipment such a EPIRBs or GPS transponders, safety sausages, flares and smoke signals. But most vessels, particularly outside the U.S., leave safety equipment up to individual divers as their own responsibility. And if you're counting on a Third World operator to find you if you drift off or fail to make rendezvous with the pickup point at the end of a dive... well, pack a lunch and be prepared to take a very proactive role in saving yourself. That's the sad reality.

Your trip insurance will usually not cover SAR, especially if it the costs are assessed by a government entity. Trip insurance and diver medical insurance (such as that offered through DAN) will cover evacuation and treatment once a diver is recovered, but is not likely to pay the costs of the actual search.

Should Divers Be Held More Responsible?

McBride of the USCG says the main reason why SAR missions may continue to be done free of charge to the lost-and-found diver is because authorities don't want people to avoid calling for help if they think there's a milliondollar price tag attached. "We don't want them to have any apprehension about calling us, because the longer the wait, the more dangerous the situation they could find themselves in."

But should lost divers be responsible for footing some or all of the bill? Divers need to be personally responsible to a reasonable degree. If you don't follow a dive plan, ignore protocols for currents/drift dives, or disregard time durations that cause you to be where you shouldn't be when the boat is trying to pick you up, then that's your fault. We don't mean to suggest that anyone should be allowed to drift away into oblivion, but it would be fair to assess some financial charge to find them. It impacts all the other divers onboard as well, since the entire operation has to shut down and passenger-diving stops while a search is conducted.

On the other hand, sometimes divers follow all instructions and conditions change, an obscuring rain storm develops, wiping out surface visibility, currents reverse, ocean swells increase, an equipment failure causes an unexpected deviation from dive plan, etc. In these instances, it's really no one's fault except good old "Murphy's Law." Divers shouldn't be blamed or charged in these circumstances.

"Expect the unexpected." Never assume that things will go without incident or as planned. If you're making a shore dive, tell someone back on land your dive plans and ETA. If you go in the water with the mindset that things can, and will, go wrong, you'll be better prepared for that contingency. Pay attention, think ahead, consider the "worst- case scenario" at all times. You can always be pleasantly surprised when everything does go right - - but don't count on it.

- - Bret Gilliam and Ben Davison

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