Rescue cost-recovery bill flies ahead

LIHUE — A plan to allow the county to recover fuel expenses incurred during search-and-rescue operations is on the fast-track for final approval after it was unanimously passed by the Public Safety Committee on Wednesday.

“As more tourists and our local population grows, the county will be forced to consider ways to pay for the increased impact on services,” Councilman Mason Chock, who introduced Bill 2589, told The Garden Island.

He added it would “help us prepare for the direction we are headed and reserve the option for us to act accordingly when there is intentional disregard for safety.”

But whether the county actually starts charging people for rescue remains to be seen.

Under state law, government entities that engage in search-and-rescue operations may already seek reimbursement for certain expenses from individuals who intentionally disregard their own safety. Those expenses include costs such as materials and supplies used in the rescue, staff time, rental of special equipment, and replacement costs for damaged equipment.

Chock’s bill expands the definition of recoverable expenses to also include fuel expended during a rescue effort.

Those fuel costs can be substantial.

Kauai County spent almost $20,000 on helicopter rescues during the 2014-2015 fiscal year that ended June 30. That figure is based on helicopter flights at $450 per hour, and does not include personnel costs, county spokeswoman Sarah Blane said.

But despite already having the ability to recover some expenses such as personnel costs, the county did not attempt to collect money from anyone who was rescued last year.

“We do not charge people for rescue,” Blane said, adding that there is no mechanism in place to actually recoup rescue costs.

Part of the problem is that under the county’s ordinance, the requirement is that a person must have shown “gross negligence,” which is a higher standard than under state law and more difficult to prove, according to Fire Chief Robert Westerman.

“We have not collected such costs because of the challenge in proving ‘gross negligence,’” Westerman said.

Chock’s bill aims to solve that problem by also clarifying the language in the existing ordinance to align with state law, which has the lower standard of intentionally acting with disregard for safety, such as ignoring a warning sign.

But there is another wrinkle: by charging for air rescues, the county could impede its standing with the FAA, which allows the fire department to conduct rescue flights without having to pay a fee.

“We appreciate the intent of Councilmember Chock’s (plan) and his concern for the safety of the public as well as our rescuers, who risk their lives to save those who act recklessly,” Westerman said. “We are now doing our due diligence to determine if the benefits of the proposed legislation will outweigh the costs and challenges of enforcing it.”

The bill is scheduled for a final vote of the full council on Wednesday.


Ryan Kazmirzack, government reporter, can be reached at 245-0428.


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