After yet another rescue from an illegal hike, Hawaii lawmakers and first responders alike are backing a proposed measure that would charge delinquent hikers hefty fines for search and rescue operations launched on their behalf.
If put into law, the bill would charge some hikers for S&R missions. Law-abiding, respectful hikers would, of course, continue to receive rescue services free of charge. Those who need rescuing after ignoring warning signs, leaving a hiking trail for a prohibited area, or venturing out on an illegal hike, however, could face serious fines.
The proposed move comes from frustration among first responders, who continuously watch tourists put themselves in harm’s way for the thrill of scaling an illegal hike or breaking Hawaii law.
The head of the firefighters’ union, specifically, demanded that the state begin charging people for air rescues from off-limits areas. “People aren’t gonna learn,” argued Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association. “We gotta try and do something else.”
The Honolulu Fire Department reported that it costs around $2,500 per hour to operate their helicopter. The typical airlift takes two hours, resulting in a $5,000 minimum cost for air rescues. It’s not out of the ordinary for the HFD to complete multiple rescues in a single day, causing astronomical costs and putting a strain on resources.
Hawaii First Responders Believe Charging for Rescues From Illegal Hikes is Impractical
While a step in the right direction in theory, both the Honolulu Fire and Police Departments oppose the bill. Allowing agencies to seek reimbursement, they argued, would be unfeasible in practice and could have dangerous consequences.
“I would have to calculate overtime costs, helicopter costs, gas, maintenance,” HPD Capt. Shellie Paiva said, per Hawaii News Now. “It’s just a bunch of things that we’re not only unable to calculate, but would also be unable to accept payment for.”
“It can cause them maybe not to call for help when they really need it initially, which can lead to much worse outcomes as things deteriorate,” argued Oahu Search and Rescue president Ethan Pearson-Pomerantz. “And that’s bad for them and also can be hazardous for the rescuers.”
Meanwhile, the Hawaii Firefighters Association vehemently disagrees. “Our firefighters will find a way, no matter how dangerous it is to try and help,” Lee said. “And like I said, that is the fear. But at the same time, you know, somehow we have to modify this behavior of people disregarding the law.”
One of the most common rescue missions in Hawaii involves the Haiku Stairs, an illegal hike in Oahu. Though Hawaii once planned to restore the former US Navy route, they eventually abandoned the project, citing liability concerns. Since then, hundreds of hikers have been cited and even arrested for criminal trespass on the iconic Stairway to Heaven route.