Search and rescue cost reimbursement bill advances

  • A Hawaii Fire Department helicopter lifts a stranded surfer and a fire rescue swimmer to shore at Hapuna Beach as a boogie boarder rides a wave below it in 2015. A bill that would allow and in some cases require government entities seek reimbursement for search and rescue costs unanimously passed its second assigned committee Wednesday. (Patrick O'Leary/Special to West Hawaii Today file photo)

A bill that would allow and in some cases require government entities seek reimbursement for search and rescue costs unanimously passed its second assigned committee Wednesday.

Senate Bill 700 would allow any government entity — typically county fire departments — engaging in a search and rescue to seek reimbursement for expenses incurred if the need for the operation was caused by the person requiring rescue.

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Entities would be required to pursue reimbursement if the person bypassed reasonable notice and/or signs and hiked on a closed trail or left a marked hiking trail to enter closed private, state or county property lands.

The measure, introduced by Big Island Sen. Joy San Buenaventura (D-Puna, Ka‘u) and eight others, was passed 7-0 with amendments by Senate Committee on Judiciary on Wednesday. It next heads to a reading on the Senate floor, where if passed there, will move to the House for consideration.

“It’s an interesting mix of people opposed and in favor in this one. I would like to keep the conversation going so I’m going to suggest that we put on a delayed effective date of May 6, 2137 to continue discussion,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Karl Rhoads (D-Oahu), before senators, including Hilo Sen. Laura Acasio, each voted “aye.”

Testimony submitted for the decision making hearing was overwhelming in support of the measure’s passage with 11 supporting the measure and three opposing it. All but one of the letters lending support for the measure were submitted by individuals calling for taxpayers to no longer fund operations to rescue those who disregard the rules.

Pololu resident Brittney Kehaulani Hedlund said in 2021 alone there have been five extrication efforts from the valley and the six valleys beyond.

“More often than not residents of this area will advise tourists who then decide to pursue their hike despite posted placards, warnings, and verbal instructions to not go down into the valley because they are unprepared to deal with sudden flash floods, rip tides, strong currents, and big surf,” she wrote. “Moreover, when tourists and residents alike access other valleys through Pololu they are in fact trespassing onto private property and should be fined for not only their extrication but also, violating state and county laws.”

The Department of Land and Natural Resources was the lone non-individual testifying in support of the measure, stating it supports any strategy to “incentivize the general public to stay within authorized managed areas,” but deferred to the counties that actually undertake the operations.

Manuel P. Neves, chairman of the State Fire Council, said in opposition that the reimbursement requirement may deter or delay prompt notification of first responder agencies.

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“Such a delay in requesting for assistance will exacerbate the situation, further endangering the lives of persons involved and their potential rescuers,” he wrote in testimony submitted Monday. “In addition, there is no existing mechanism to seek reimbursement for these situations. Implementation of a reimbursement mechanism will require a significant administrative effort by the four county fire departments to establish and maintain.”

Another bill moving in the Senate, Senate Bill 363, would also require reimbursement from hikers who need to be rescued after leaving a marked trail or ignoring “closed” or “no trespassing” signs. Further, it would add new petty misdemeanor penalties for hiking illegally. That measure is dead after failing to secure a single hearing this session.

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