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Search-and-rescue: Who pays? Who should pay?

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - Thousands of hours go into search-and-rescue missions every year in Kern County.

Local taxpayers foot some of that bill, but hundreds of volunteers donate the majority of the effort and expense.

At least one other California county now has a plan to recoup the cost of rescues in its backcountry, and in Los Angeles County lost hikers can get fined in at least one section of national forest.

A state Assembly member from Orange County introduced a bill in the last legislative session to let counties bill people who get rescued. That proposal was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

But, local crews said there's a strong argument in the search-and-rescue community for not charging those who get saved.

Sheriff's Lt. Dana Albro said those who get rescued in Kern County do not get charged.

"If there's a bill attached, or there's a price charged for that search-and-rescue mission, they will probably hold off on calling," Albro told Eyewitness News, "which may make the circumstances in the situation worse."

That leaves volunteers with a big job to do, and they pick up a lot of the tab.

"We've been on plane crashes, recovering victims from that. We've rescued children, dead and alive," Aaron Lynam told Eyewitness News. He heads up Kern County's swift-water rescue team based in Bakersfield.

"We get called out for evidence recovery, and vehicle recovery," volunteer David Irvine said. He's the captain of the dive team.

They can be groping through a submerged vehicle found in a canal, or searching for the body of a river drowning victim.

"I do it to give closure to the families," he said.

"We rescue people, search for evidence, try to find children who are lost, assist people who have Alzheimer's," Albro said.

And, they put in a lot of time.

Albro said the unit now has 10 teams, and currently 211 members. In 2013, they donated 43,572 hours between being on missions and training.

That's just part of their contribution.

"Not only do they have to purchase uniforms, but they also have to purchase specialized equipment and personal equipment," Albro explained. She said volunteers often dip into their own pockets to buy necessary gear.

"Rigging gear can be upwards of $2,000," she said, and volunteers buy their own diving suits, which can be thousands of dollars.

"The equipment that we have, all of our trucks, a majority if it was through grants," volunteer David Irvine explained, "or from our own pockets."

Albro said while the volunteers donate a lot of time and equipment, the sheriff's department budgets $60,000 for search-and-rescue work. That can go for things like meals for search crews, some fuel reimbursement, and some equipment.

There are also four officers on the county's payroll who work with search-and-rescue. In addition to Albro, two sheriff sergeants and a senior deputy are assigned to the unit, spending at least part of their time on search-and-rescue.

Then, there is also the expense of helicopter time, required for some rescues.

Those kinds of expenses led San Diego County to start charging for some rescue missions.

"Every year, dozens of people are lost or injured in San Diego County's vast backcounty," reads a statement. "Ill-equipped and reckless hikers put a strain on the Sheriff's Department resources and budget."

In July 2013, San Diego passed a county ordinance to address the problem.

"The amended county ordinance allows for a civil process to collect up to $12,000 in recovery expenses," the statement explains. "Law breakers can also be arrested or cited for criminal offenses."

Only those who break the law would get charged for their rescue.

KernTax Executive Director Mike Turnipseed isn't crazy about charging people who need to be rescued, but he says San Diego's civil process is important.

"A civil process means they'll take you to court," Turnipseed said. "That's probably fair. That means it has to go in front of a judge."

But, he still thinks being rescued is something taxpayers may expect from their local government.

"There's certain services that we expect, and certain services we probably shouldn't expect, but we need," Turnipseed said. "And this is something that we want."

A very expensive search in Orange County prompted Assemblyman Don Wagner to introduce a bill in Sacramento this year that would let counties get back rescue costs. It was March 2013 when two hikers got lost in Trabuco Canyon, leading to a search effort Wagner said cost responding agencies over $160,000.

The statement from Wagner's office on AB 2151 said the goal of the bill was to recover the costs of "a resident who is 16 years of age or older and whose act in violation of any federal or state law or local ordinance, or any act or omission that shows wanton and reckless misconduct in disregard for their safety" contributed to the need for rescue.

Kern County legislative analyst Allan Krauter told Eyewitness News Gov. Brown vetoed the bill because it would have allowed counties to bill a person without filing a civil lawsuit. Krauter said local officials did not take a position on AB 2151, and noted it was supported by the California State Association of Counties, and California State Sheriff's Association.

Krauter said some years ago, Kern County's supervisors looked at the idea of charging for rescues. He said they tried to get support for legislation that would let counties charge another county for the search and rescue of their residents. But, they didn't get any traction on the idea.

But, in Los Angeles County, the U.S. Forest Service now has a plan in place to charge hikers who get lost in a mountain area east of Pasadena.

Citations will be written by the USFS to people who go past posted signs in Eaton Canyon, according to L.A. County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Chief Mike Leum. He said the citations are like tickets for a trespassing-related code. He doesn't know how much the fine will be, or if any have been issued yet.

The area of Eaton Canyon is notorious for hikers who get off the trail, and climb canyon walls to reach a waterfall. Some end up falling, and they've had a lot of rescues in the area.

But, Chief Leum says his unit still thinks people should not be charged for being rescued. He says the mountain rescue community worries if people think they'll be billed, that could delay asking for help -- which could lead to lives being lost.

And that's the position Kern's search and rescue teams take, and the volunteers step up to the task.

"In 2013 we had over 9,000 hours and we had 37 missions," volunteer Aaron Lynam said. He's with the swift water team that works the lower end of the Kern River. "The most we had was 2007, we had 30 call-outs in a weekend." That was the Fourth of July. His tally of hours doesn't include all the training time.

"It takes a lot of dedication, it does wear on the family and yourself sometimes," he said. "Because you do so much."

He's a former Marine, and says he wanted to put those skills to good use as a civilian. But, all the search and rescue missions take away from his regular job. "I work for the Department of Water Resources, the California Aqueduct," he said. He's a hydroelectric plant mechanic.

David Irvine has to get time off from his regular job.

"I'm a surgical tech at San Joaquin Hospital," Irvine says. "Our employer is gracious enough to let me go. I use vacation time, whatever time I've got built up." As head of the dive team, the time spent on rescues also means danger.

"Every time we put on the gear, we virtually put ourselves on the line," he says. "The waters are pretty treacherous, we get into zero visibility diving, and high moving water, when there's water."

Do the volunteers get paid in any way?

"We pay them, or repay them once a year," Lt. Albro says. "They get an appreciation dinner." She says after missions, crews may also get meals bought by the county. "If we did not have our volunteers, I don't see how any organization could fund a search and rescue team. It's an incredible amount of time, effort and equipment," she says.

Albro says most of the ten teams also have non-profit 501(c)3 entities, and they do a lot of fund raising to help get the gear and equipment they need.

Irvine insists the public doesn't owe the volunteers anything. When asked, Aaron Lynam said the public can help their efforts.

"Just be aware of your surroundings," he says. "Keep an eyeball on your kids. We can do what we can, but we like finding people alive and good to go, so we can get them to safety."

But they do that sometimes dangerous work for free, and often pay for a lot of gear and equipment themselves.

"They volunteer their time, walk away from their families, walk away from their jobs," Sgt. Royce Haislip says. Asked if the public is getting a real bargain? "I'd say so," Haislip said. "Yes."

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