Hell to Pay
Motorola ad campaign for its new high-tech Sport Radio walkie-talkie that pokes fun at the supposedly high cost of wilderness rescues has inflamed Colorado's search-and-rescue squads.
"You can't find a decent rescue for under $100,000 these days," reads a version of the ad in the December issue of Popular Science magazine. "[With] the UH-1 Huey military helicopter and a ground search team including ATV's, bloodhounds, night search lights--this rescue stuff can add up quicker than a Connecticut wedding."
Very funny, says Howard M. Paul of the Colorado Search and Rescue Board. "This ad could do more damage than anything else in the past fifteen years," claims Paul, who is worried about the public perception of rescue operations.
Now Motorola has backed off. While insisting that it intended no harm, the company says the ad campaign will be yanked next month.
But some rescuers maintain that the damage has already been done. Paul and others say the ad campaign's emphasis on the high cost of rescues could cause people to hesitate to call in the search troops and thus further endanger stranded people in the high country. They say lost parties rarely, if ever, pay for the cost of their rescues.
The only instance that Jill Masters, paramedic and deputy sheriff in San Miguel County, can recall of a person actually paying for a rescue was when cover girl Christie Brinkley's helicopter went down outside Telluride a few years back. "She donated to each of the teams that helped out with the rescue," says Masters, "but it's safe to say that she didn't manage to cover all of the expenses."
On the other hand, some stranded people apparently fear having to pay. Masters recalls an incident near Telluride in which a man broke a leg in the mountains and his friends called for help. "We sent a helicopter out to search for him," says Masters. "When the guy saw the helicopter overhead, he hid, because he didn't want to pay for it. We had to coax the guy out of the bushes by telling him that he wasn't going to get charged."
That's not to say that rescue squads are flush with money or that people absolutely never pay. Jim Raymond of Douglas County Emergency Management Services says, "The potential exists for you to have to pay the financial consequences of a rescue operation, but it's not typically the case."
Rescuers nevertheless have had to fight the misconception that lost parties are forced to pay for their own rescue. He recalls a meeting of young mothers during which one woman asked how long she should wait to call for a rescue team if her four-year-old daughter got lost. "How long would you wait to call the fire department if you smelled smoke in your house?" he asks rhetorically. "Is it worth the life of a loved one to wait it out if they get lost because you're worried about the cost?"
Motorola is somewhat red-faced about the ads. "We never intended to undermine the efforts of search-and-rescue teams," says product manager Cornelius Lee from the company's Schaumburg, Illinois, headquarters. "We recognize the great service they provide, and we wholeheartedly support them."
Lee contends, however, that the $100,000 figure used in the ad was not simply plucked out of the air. He says it was taken from a 1993 Christian Science Monitor article about a week-long rescue mission at Yosemite National Park.
Search-and-rescue folks say the whole idea of a specific cost is misleading. Rescue teams spend most of their money long before any particular person is stuck in a snowdrift. "It's sort of like an athletic event," Paul explains. "Ninety percent of it is preparation. The mileage to and from the rescue, gas, aircraft rental and food for the search teams are just a small part of our annual budgets.
"The things that cost a lot are insurance, vehicles, mortgages on search-and-rescue buildings, and phone bills. And that doesn't include salaries, because pretty much all of our personnel are volunteers. You spend money on these things regardless if you have to save somebody or not."
So who exactly does pay? Searchers say the money comes from a variety of sources, including federal funds, donations, specific local funds and, in some cases, money paid for hunting and fishing licenses.
The search troops are glad Motorola is yanking the ad campaign, but some of them have another bone to pick with the consumers of new electronic devices. One reason the number of search-and-rescue operations has increased in recent years, says Paul, is because of the increased numbers of "weekend warriors" who, equipped with the latest technology such as the radios advertised by Motorola, go off into the wilderness with little or no experience.
"Part of the problem is people relying on radios and other high-tech gadgets such as Global Positioning Satellites without first having the basic skills--such as map reading, first aid and recognizing changes in weather patterns--to properly use them," says Paul. There are other reasons for the increase in weekend warriors, he adds: "The emergence of indoor climbing gyms has given people some good mountaineering skills which don't necessarily apply to the outdoors--like knowing whether or not a tree has deep enough roots to tie onto.
"I can't blame the increasing numbers of rescues solely upon recreational reliance upon electronics, but it's something we have to examine in the future as these gizmos become more common and people get a false sense of security from having them. I mean, what do you do when your batteries fail
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter