To pay or not to pay: Foolhardy adventurer sparks debate

The rescue of a man who set out on a long trek with just potatoes and naan bread is likely to cost taxpayers about $10,000.

The 29-year-old Victorian planned to cross the New South Wales Blue Mountains in just three days – a task police say was virtually impossible – but came unstuck after injuring his ankle.

A search operation was launched last Wednesday after the bushwalker failed to meet friends at a pre-designated rendezvous point.

When the man was found, police discovered he had no locator beacon and had only one kilogram of potatoes and naan bread in his backpack.

The man was handed a $500 fine; a fraction of the cost of rescuing him.

After yesterday publicly chastising the bushwalker for endangering himself and the search teams, NSW Police today refused to estimate what plucking him to safety had cost. A spokesman said police do not comment on the cost of operations.

What is known is this: two police choppers were involved in last Wednesday’s search. Polair 2 found the man in the Wolgan Valley but Polair 3 had to be called upon to winch the man to safety.

NSW Police usually charge between $2500 and $3300 per hour to recover the cost of using a chopper for non-police matters like traffic control or filming for a television show or movie, according to a publicly-available schedule of fees.

NSW Police also refused to say how long the helicopters were in the air during last week's rescue but it’s understood to have been a number of hours, potentially taking costs to about $10,000.

In addition, a team of State Emergency Service volunteers were deployed on the eastern side of the Blue Mountains to look for the man, while in the west, four NSW Volunteer Rescue Association members battled fading light in a three-hour search.

Previous calls to bill unprepared or negligent bushwalkers and water enthusiasts for the cost of their rescues have been dismissed as impractical because the costs – often climbing into the tens of thousands of dollars - are unaffordable.

Yesterday, social media users debated the merits of a user-pays system as a deterrent for dumb behaviour.

 “People need to be made responsible for foolish actions that waste resources,” @wombatjedi said on Twitter.

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However, Philip Penfold, a councillor from the NSW Hunter region, said the situation was more complex.

“Worth consideration, though we don’t charge smokers and morbidly obese more for public health care,” he tweeted.

Authorities estimate the Snowy Hydro SouthCare helicopter, which services Canberra and southern NSW, costs about $6000 an hour to operate.

Missions from Western Australia and Tasmania’s emergency helicopter services cost between $10,000 and $12,000 an hour.

Bushwalking Australia former president David Reid said charging hikers for their rescue could prove harmful.

“To introduce a broad-based penalty for people who get into trouble could well deter them from seeking assistance when it’s important to do so,” he said.

“There are usually provisions anyway for the authorities to impose some sort of sanction, like a small fine, against people deemed totally irresponsible or wilfully negligent.”

Mr Reid said this was the first time he had heard of an unprepared bushwalker being fined.

NSW SES spokesman Phil Campbell said bush searches imposed little cost on the organisation thanks to volunteer labour. But they do often present unnecessary risks, he said.

“While our volunteers are trained and well supplied and equipped, there is always an element of risk when they go out into the bush to search for people and it’s important the public understands that and follows the warnings,” he said.

NSW Volunteer Rescue Association commissioner Mark Gibson said many searches would be prevented if all bushwalkers carried locator beacons.

In 2012, about 1700 beacons were triggered this year. About 270 resulted in costly searches, with only 109 found to be genuine emergencies. Some activated the devices after encountering minor car problems.

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