Update added October 8, 2016 (original public comment follows below).

In August 2015, Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson proposed an ordinance to charge victims – generally, urban explorers – for search and rescue fees if they were trespassing at the time.

On first thought, this seems like a no-brainer, but for the reasons set forth in my below public comment sent to the City on August 10, 2015 — before the text of the ordinance was made public — charging victims for search and rescue fees is bad public policy.

Data has shown that victims are more likely to delay calling for help if they know they’ll be hurt financially, which can cause further injury to themselves and rescuers. Nearly every search-and-rescue organization that has analyzed the issue has come out against charging victims, even when their own actions are responsible for their situation.

Unfortunately, the ordinance passed unanimously. While the final language contains a few areas of improvement from what was originally promoted to the media, it was also shockingly expanded to apply to anyone violating any law at the time they need technical rescue.

The ordinance applies to situations where first responders “utilize aspects of saving or protecting life that employ the use of specialized tools and skills that exceed those normally [used]…” and authorizes charges of $721 for the first two hours and $300 per hour after that to “…any person who receives technical rescue service as a result of the person’s trespassing, entering into or upon the property or portion thereof not open to the public without the consent of an owner, operator or occupant authorized to provide consent, or through the violation of any other applicable law…”

The fee is assessed “jointly and severally” to both the property owner and the victim, and the ordinance provides that the victim and property owner will be billed even if they didn’t call for help, and will be “liable for all collection costs” including “reasonable attorney fees and court costs” if they don’t pay within 90 days of receiving a bill. The “debt” can be certified for collection with property taxes, which could ultimately result in tax forfeiture of a person’s property.

The ordinance doesn’t include any reporting mechanism, so no statistics are required to be made available to the public or elected officials on how the ordinance has been used, nor whether it has been effective or harmful.

At the committee hearing, Minneapolis Assistant City Attorney Joel Fussy, who worked on the ordinance, said the City was using the authority granted to it by state statute, and that the charging would “…only be triggered in case the technical rescue service is required because of a person’s illegal activity…”

City Council Member Cam Gordon noted that there were two fatalities in his ward in grain elevators, and questioned if the City would be required to charge in all instances, wondering who would be the person to go to the parents of a deceased child with a bill for services. Fussy responded that the ordinance was “patterned after a model ordinance from the League of Minnesota Cities,” and that it did offer some discretion.

Council Member Linea Palmisano asked what other cities have discovered as to whether the ordinance could be an onerous impact on property liability insurance, but Fussy said Minneapolis was the only city to particularize to a certain type of rescue.


Public Comment submitted August 10, 2015:

Dear Minneapolis City Council Members,

I’m writing with public comment on Council President Barbara Johnson’s notice of intent to introduce a city ordinance to “authoriz[e] the [City’s] charging of fees for certain emergency services including technical rescue responses.” According to news stories, the purpose of the ordinance – the text of which hasn’t been made available yet – is to “bill urban explorers who end up needing rescue” for costs incurred by the City, after a man “…trespassed into the abandoned Fruen Mill and fell forty feet back in June,” among other incidents.

As a resident and homeowner in Minneapolis, I can appreciate that the City Council is looking for opportunities to preserve taxpayer funds. In this case, Council President Johnson said that it’s not fair for taxpayers to pick up the bill when individuals engage in risky and illegal activities, but that is apropos of many matters of public health policy that we face.

I am concerned that if this ordinance was in place, urban explorers needing emergency rescue might delay seeking help and attempt self-rescue to avoid incurring costs, which could cause further injury and add complexity and risk for rescuers.

There has been significant debate pertaining to charging for search-and-rescue (SAR) missions in the wild, which are applicable here too.

The Chief of Search and Rescue for the National Park Service said this year, “When you have to make a decision in an emergency, you don’t want to be hamstrung with economics … you want to make the right decisions for the right reasons.”

“Often people will delay calling for help when they fear a cost,” the President of the U.S. Mountain Rescue Association said in 2009, “…that delay in the call for help can increase the risk to rescuers and the subject alike.” Likewise, a spokesperson for the National Association for Search and Rescue said earlier this year, “We oppose charging [because] when people have a perception that they will be billed for rescue, they may delay calling for help, they may choose not to call for help, or they may refuse help when it arrives.”

The Colorado Search and Rescue Board even compiled 15 actual case studies of individuals delaying or refusing search and rescue help over fear of a large bill, resulting in further injury, delays in obtaining assistance, and companions of injured adventurers lying and withholding details about their injured partners, all of which expose both the victim and rescuers to further hazard.

In a 2014 search-and-rescue situation 900 miles off the coast of México, an American sailboat encountered a storm that damaged the ship’s masts while a ‘seriously ill’ one-year-old baby was also on board. As the California Air National Guard and U.S. Navy spent approximately $633,000 on a pararescue mission, many questioned the risks the family took and the costs to taxpayers. Consistent with policy, the military didn’t seek reimbursement, saying in a press conference that the military was happy the family sought help as early as they did, that the mission served as invaluable training: “It’s a slippery slope to start putting value on a life … and we won’t be part of it.” The military continued, “We’re in the saving-lives business, not the billing business.”

It’s important to remember that someone in distress is a victim, even if they’re a victim of their own circumstances. Given the added public safety risk the ordinance could potentially impose, it boils down to an exercise in empathy and harm reduction.

Harm reduction often conflicts with the law. Drug users partake in an activity that is both illegal and risky, but the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office spent taxpayer dollars to have deputies carry naloxone to treat for acute symptoms of overdose. Officials say that may have made a difference, as new data shows Hennepin County had a “big drop in opiate deaths.” Similarly, the Minnesota Legislature has codified into statute that pharmacists may sell small quantities of new syringes without a prescription to reduce HIV risk, even though the possession of syringes without a prescription remains illegal. The City of Minneapolis has at least indirectly funded such harm reduction programs.

Police can’t do their job if City residents hold back information on violent crime. The City of Minneapolis has an ‘immigration separation ordinance’ which prohibits police officers from questioning or enforcing immigration status, ensuring that crime victims and individuals with information can report it to police without fearing deportation – enhancing public safety for everyone.

Let’s apply these principles of harm reduction and empathy to the topic of this proposed ordinance, too.

The City and property owners already have civil and criminal remedies, including restitution that can be sought in certain circumstances. Passing this ordinance would be harmful to public safety, would be likely to put rescuers at further risk, and would ultimately provide little financial gain for the City.

I hope that you reject this ordinance, or in the alternative, explore alternate solutions like strict security requirements on abandoned commercial properties.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,
Tony Webster