The Bulletin Board

The cost of New Hampshire search and rescue missions

By: - June 15, 2022 6:29 pm

New Hampshire Fish and Game undertakes approximately 180 search and rescue missions each year, such as this one on Mount Washington. (Courtesy of New Hampshire Fish and Game)

Around 180 times a year, New Hampshire Fish and Game search and rescue units are dispatched to aid someone who has gotten in trouble outdoors. Sometimes, it’s a call from a hiker who has slipped on a wet rock and broken a leg or ankle. Other times, it’s from a rock climber who is stranded on a ledge without ropes or a way to get down.

While calls for assistance have been steadily climbing over the past two decades, in the early part of the pandemic they skyrocketed, nearly doubling during one quarter in 2020. That steep uptick in calls has since abated, returning to pre-pandemic levels, but the state remains on a gradual upward trajectory.

In response to that 2020 spike, the department launched an educational campaign, which has since ended. Col. Kevin Jordan, who oversees search and rescue missions for New Hampshire Fish and Game, attributes the decrease in calls to a return to normalcy, with other events like soccer games and school functions providing additional recreational outlets that weren’t available at the height of the pandemic, when so many people turned to the outdoors.

A report detailing search and rescue expenditures and revenues is pending approval from the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, which is set to take it up this Friday. According to that report, the search and rescue unit spent $186,333 in the first quarter of 2022, $80,812 in the second quarter, and $30,665 in the third quarter.

The numbers reflect a normal amount of calls, Jordan said. This year, the department is on track to rescue around 180 people, the state average for the past 10 years. 

In addition to the 180 rescues, the unit receives an additional 70 or so calls per year where they provide assistance over the phone in non-life-threatening situations. Twenty years ago, the state received only around 70 total calls per year. Jordan believes numbers are rising as cell phone coverage increases and more people partake in extreme sports.

“People are more able to call for help. They’re leaving on their hike and their tool for survival is their cell phone, which is crazy, but that’s what they’re doing rather than bring extra clothes and be prepared to spend the night,” he said.

In a typical year, search and rescue missions cost the state around $300,000. But the mandate to complete the missions didn’t include a way of funding them, Jordan said. That created a situation he believed to be unfair: where sportsmen and sportswomen, who accounted for only about 9 percent of rescues, were paying for most of their cost through OHRV, ATV, snowmobile, and boat registrations, in addition to hunting and fishing licenses. 

That changed in 2015, when the state started selling Hike Safe cards, which have brought in around $200,000 in funding for rescues. They’re optional cards that cost $25 for an individual and $35 for a family.

This year, the department reported $212,630 in revenues from Hike Safe cards, $118,574 from fees and donations, and $8,215 in agency response fees.

There’s another way to fund search and rescue missions – charging the individual in need of rescue if they’ve been negligent. Jordan said he doesn’t like to charge people in need of rescue, and it only happens around a dozen times a year.

“We only bill people who are reckless, that do things that are outrageous and that puts people in danger,” he said. “In some scenarios, people have been told to turn around and they’ve ignored that advice and kept going. … We bill for those kinds of things.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.