County not seeking rescue reimbursement

NAPALI — The County of Kauai doesn’t collect reimbursements for airlift rescue expenses like those sometimes necessary on the Kalalau Trail, even though there are legal ways to recoup those dollars.

According to Fire Chief Robert Westerman, in calendar year 2015 there were 82 rescue flights conducted by Air 1. Of those, 22 were fire, 47 were medical, and 13 fell into the category of “other,” which means police, maintenance, or county use.

During the 2014-15 fiscal year that ended June 30, 2015, the county spent almost $20,000 on helicopter rescues. Westerman said the cost to operate Air 1 is $450 an hour, plus fuel and crew.

“Depending on the length of the call and the number of crew members, including additional crews if required, is different for each call,” Westerman said.

In July 2015, the County Council passed an ordinance that allowed the county to recover fuel expenses incurred during search-and-rescue operations.

State law already allows government entities to seek reimbursement for certain expenses from individuals who intentionally disregard their own safety.

Those expenses are related to materials and supplies used in the rescue, staff time, rental of special equipment, and replacement costs for damages on equipment. The county ordinance expands that definition to include fuel expenses.

The ordinance, number 991, also clarifies that disregarding a safety warning or notice constitutes as intentional disregard for safety.

“Any and all persons who cause or contribute to … an individual in a situation of distress or peril via any act of omission which constitutes as intentional disregard for the individual’s safety, and which results in a rescue operation shall be liable to the county for all recoverable expenses resulting from the rescue operation,” the ordinance states.

Even though they could send rescued people a bill, the county isn’t taking advantage of the ordinance.

“At this time, the county does not charge individuals for rescue-related services,” said county spokeswoman Sarah Blane.

Councilmember Mason Chock, who proposed Ordinance 991, said the county is not yet pursuing collection of expenses incurred in such rescues, but may. It gave the Planning Department a year to come up with educational outreach materials and proper signage to be sure people who disregard safety notices are aware they could be charged for rescue costs.

Westerman explained that when Air 1 responds to a distress call, the crew on board extricates the person, or people, from the area and transports them to the nearest landing zone. That’s where medical personnel decide whether the person is in critical condition and needs to be taken to Honolulu.

If transportation to Honolulu via Air Ambulance is required, the process is handled by the medical care facilities and the county isn’t involved.

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