Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue
Recent ice rescues of fisherman from floating ice sheets on lakes across Minnesota, and particularly in Beltrami County, have generated much conversation in our area. Among a variety of questions directed to me I’d like to explore the following:
• Who bears the cost of rescue or recovery missions for people who take extraordinary risks?
• And more directly: should policy be written to hold people accountable who put themselves at risk — fisherman on thin ice, hunters and hikers lost in the woods, ATV and snowmobile accidents or medical events that occur in remote areas — and that result in an inordinate expense to taxpayers?
Recently two ice rescues were conducted in Beltrami County. The cost to local taxpayers came into question. Together, these two searches cost approximately $1000. The cost to taxpayers was minimal because these rescues occurred when on-duty personnel were able to respond efficiently and the situations resolved speedily and successfully.
Critics argued that one of these rescues involved off-duty local peace officers who, because of their employment, should be billed for the taxpayer costs associated with their rescue. Of course, both individuals are taxpaying Beltrami County residents and are certainly entitled to the same rescue efforts as any citizen. Would this have mattered if their employer weren’t law enforcement? Who among us intends to be the focus of search and rescue efforts?
Our county has been compared to other counties in the Western United States where hikers and mountain climbers go missing or become stranded requiring monumental search and rescue efforts on the part of Sheriff’s Offices and Search and Rescue (SAR) Organizations. In some of these areas, hikers and climbers are charged fees before they embark on their adventures, helping defray the costs of search and rescue missions.
Research of data from some Sheriff’s Offices in the western states indicates several departments mount rescue efforts more than 120 times per year. On average, some of these agencies mount rescue missions every three days.
The searches — often conducted for lost hikers and mountain climbers in rugged, heavily wooded, mountainous terrain — are typically protracted and costly, requiring the use of aircraft to aid in the search efforts. It makes sense, for adventurers in these remote and dangerous areas, to pay a “fee-for-use” to help defray the costs borne by these agencies and taxpayers.
Included in the powers and duties imposed on Sheriffs by Minnesota Statute 387.03 is a requirement to conduct search and recovery efforts for drowned bodies and searches for lost persons. The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office is able to perform this mission admirably through a team effort that includes professional law enforcement officers, Emergency Medical Personnel, volunteer and professional Firefighters, and a large cadre of volunteers in the Sheriff’s Posse, Community Guard, Lakes Area Dive Team, Paul Bunyan Amateur Radio Club and Civil Air Patrol who are trained in search and rescue techniques. If needed, we can access additional manpower and air support from several state and federal agencies.
Searches that become protracted due to inability to quickly locate the victims require additional man power and a tremendous volunteer effort. These often escalate costs, which taxpayers bear. Because of this, some argue strongly that county taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill when people place themselves at risk where an expensive and protracted rescue effort is required to save them. It has been suggested Beltrami County look into the possibility of creating some type of fee structure to cover these events.
An examination of the historical records in the Beltrami Sheriff’s Office for the last five years reveal approximately six-to-eight searches and rescues are conducted annually. Of these, only one or two are protracted or develop into more than a “routine” search effort.
Because of the relative infrequency of dramatic SARs required of the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office, the “Search and Rescue fee” doesn’t make sense. How do we establish a policy and promote a sustainable system that will assess and monitor the thousands who live and visit here to snowmobile, hike, fish, and hunt in our county’s vast wooded areas, streams, lakes and trails?
The historically minimal cost for these searches is rightfully born by county tax payers rather than by an elaborate fee structure with the consequent administrative duties and expensive enforcement functions required to administer a “fee-for-service” plan.
That said, remember: if your child is missing, your brother finds himself lost while hunting, or your father wanders away from a resort because he suffers Alzheimer’s disease, you will want me to deploy every resource available to find them. And I will. We do this because it’s the law. Mostly though, we do it because we care.
Sheriff Phil Hodapp