Charging illegal hikers for rescue costs considered again by Hawaii lawmakers

Dan Nakaso, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
·4 min read

Feb. 21—Renewed efforts are underway in the state Senate to allow county first-responders to charge outlaw hikers for the cost of rescuing them—and issue criminal fines as well—at a time when government spending is under stress from the fallout of would require reimbursement from hikers who need to be rescued after leaving a marked trail or ignoring "closed "

or "no trespassing " signs. SB 363 also would add new petty misdemeanor penalties for hiking illegally.

Additionally, the reimbursement costs could be billed to each hiker's estate, guardians or custodians, under SB 363.

A revised version of would merely give county search and rescue teams the option of seeking reimbursement from outlaw hikers.

Hikers get into trouble every year across the islands, requiring them to be plucked to safety by county police and fire department helicopters, equipment and specialized teams—operations that can risk the lives of the rescuers themselves.

On July 21, 1995, Honolulu Police Department Specialized Services Division officers Bryant Bane and Tate Kahakai flew in a mesh basket suspended below a Honolulu Fire Department helicopter piloted by Peter Crown as they searched for a missing hiker in the hills above Sacred Falls near Punaluu.

The chopper crashed in bad weather, killing all three men.

Four years later, a Mother's Day rockslide at Sacred Falls killed eight hikers and injured dozens more, leading the state to close access to the site and post "no trespassing " signs.

But illegal hikers continue to get into trouble at prohibited sites, including Sacred Falls and Stairway to Heaven in Kaneohe, which also has posted "no trespassing " signs.

Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, provided written testimony in support of the original version of SB 700 that mandated that illegal hikers be billed for their search and rescue costs. The amended bill now only allows for the option for counties to seek repayment.

"The Department is in support of any strategy that will incentivize the general public to stay within authorized managed areas and already has statutory penalties for violation of laws and rules adopted specifically for going into closed areas, " Case wrote. "While these penalties are in place, absent enforcement and citations, they are clearly not a deterrent."

Because search and rescue activities are county responsibilities, Case said DLNR would defer to local fire and rescue agencies in regard to charging for rescues. "While this may be an incentive for people to obey the rules, it could also discourage people from calling for help, " Case noted.

E. Ileina Funakoshi testified in support of the original version of SB 700 and wrote : "The people of HI have been covering the cost of these adventurers too long. It is time that we are not held responsible for their irresponsibility. Perhaps, if they were informed that they would have to pay the cost of their rescue, they might reconsider in taking risks that endanger their lives."

Similar bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate before, but state Sen. Chris Lee, (D, Hawaii Kai-Waimanalo-Kailua ), said government resources are stretched and county and state budgets are straining because of COVID-19.

"It's an issue that has been brought up in the past in a number of ways, especially in times when budgets are thin and resources are limited, " Lee told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "It's a discussion that everybody is interested in having this year."

But the HFD continues its traditional opposition to seeking reimbursement for rescuing anyone, including people who ignore warnings and do something illegal either on land or in the ocean.

"Same position as before, " said HFD spokesman Carl Otsuka. "The Honolulu Fire Department does not want to deter anyone from calling 911, thinking there is going to be a cost associated with them getting help."

HFD last year conducted 229 "land rescues, " including 181 classified as "high angle rescues " on steep terrain. Fire crews also conducted 223 water rescues, which are not part of either Senate bill.

HFD does not track individual or total costs for search and rescue operations, partly because the activities occur when fire ­fighters are already on duty, Otsuka said. And when it comes to performing rescues, the department does not take into account whether hikers exhibited good or bad behavior.

"We do not distinguish between people who go off trails and people who stay on the trails and follow the rules, " Otsuka said.