CINCINNATI – When two fishermen wandered lost in the woods around the Great Miami River for six hours this week, rescuers from three municipalities were called in for a search that included a helicopter, as well as watercraft. Despite the resources spent on their misadventure, taxpayers, not the lost fishermen, will pay for the extensive search operation.
Officials with the Miami Township Fire Department and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, two of the three agencies that rescued the men, said the costs associated with legitimate search-and-rescue operations are almost never billed to people who are rescued. Officials in Warren and Butler counties said the same, unless the same person or group is repeatedly calling for help, further stretching public resources in a time of austerity.
One of the reasons, officials say, is that if some victims are in life-threatening situations, they may put money concerns over safety and decline to contact the authorities.
“The one thing we don’t want is people fearing to call 911 because they will get billed,” said Steve Ober, Miami Township fire chief. “Most of us (public safety officials) have the same mentality.”
The Hamilton County Sheriff's helicopter was used to rescue the two men. Barry Werning, 58, of Green Township, and Dan Adams, 56, of Cleves, quit fishing at about 9 p.m. Sunday, and decided to walk through the woods.
The two got lost and walked for about six hours, becoming exhausted and dehydrated and eventually collapsing, officials with the sheriff's office said. The sheriff's aviation unit, park rangers and rescuers from Whitewater and Miami townships searched by air, ground and water.
“The people we rescue are normally residents of the townships, and even if they’re not, they’re paying taxes somewhere,” Ober said. “The fire departments in this area work really closely together anyway, and as publicly-funded agencies, we are entrusted to perform duties taxpayers pay us to do.”
At 9 a.m., the aviation unit spotted the two men about 100 yards off the riverbank. Rescue boats were unable to reach them, so the helicopter landed on the bank and flew each man, one at a time, to a landing zone where paramedics were waiting.
“In 99 percent of cases, we do not charge people,” said Tim Doyle, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s chief pilot. “Even for chronic abusers of the system, I would say it’s a stretch for them to see a bill from us.”
Doyle did note that the sheriff’s helicopter operates as a police or public safety “action,” in comparison to medical helicopters, which function in a medical role, similar to ambulances. Medical runs are billable, either through insurance claims or as an out-of-pocket expense for victims, he said.
Ober was reluctant to estimate how much the rescue operation cost his agency, but said that much of the cost is already accounted for in the budget.
The sheriff’s office does not bill for legitimate use of the helicopter, said Mike Robison, spokesperson for the office. However, the sheriff’s office has billed other agencies if they requested “additional, non-emergency fly time to assist them,” he said.
“If we can save a life because of our aviation unit and it’s a legitimate emergency, we’re not looking to mail that person a bill afterward,” Robison said. “We’re just doing our job.”
Also this week, a 13-year-old boy died after drowning in the Great Miami River as he was walking with a 17-year-old friend in the river behind the Waste Water Treatment Plant on Old Oxford State Road about 6:30 p.m. Abruptly, two feet of water dropped off to 15 feet with currents and an undertow, said Sgt. Rick Bucheit, a supervisor in the Butler County Sheriff’s criminal investigations section and the marine patrol unit.
“We don’t have a set policy,” Bucheit said. “But in the case of what happened earlier this week, the last thing a family needs is a bill in that situation – that was definitely a legitimate emergency case.”
All officials said in cases of chronic abuse, for instance if a security or fire alarm goes off three times in one week, they may send a bill.
“If the same guy is getting stuck in the river, he’d probably get billed,” Ober said. “In the rare cases where a bill was actually sent, they fixed the problem pretty quick.”
In cases involving a criminal act, such as a police pursuit, SWAT team raids or a methamphetamine lab clean up, the person accused of the crime may be asked to pay back responding agencies in the form of restitution. If a person is arrested in connection with making false alarms, there might be a request for restitution through the court system.
“For a SWAT call out, there is a lot of equipment and staffing that is required,” said Warren County Sheriff’s Office Major Brian Tinch, the operations division commander. “We will ask for restitution, through the prosecutor’s office, to recoup some of that cost.”
Even the federal Drug Enforcement Agency leaves it up to the owner of a property to conduct environmental clean up following a methamphetamine lab bust, said agency spokesperson Rich Isaacson. In Ohio, there are four containers where local agencies investigating methamphetamine labs can take any toxic materials used in the production of the drug for disposal. The use and maintenance of containers are paid through the Community Oriented Policing Services grant funding, a federal grant program through the Department of Justice.
“Any environmental clean up at the actual site after the lab is cleaned up – the dry wall, or flooring – is the responsibility of the homeowner or resident,” Isaacson said.