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Friday, March 2, 2012

Amherst, Massachusetts Contemplates Moral Hazard

Moral Hazard at Reichenbach Falls

Two weeks ago, firefighters from Amherst and surrounding communities rescued 22-year-old Scott Merrick, who had fallen 25 feet from the top of Bare Mountain in the Notch, a popular hiking venue in the Mount Holyoke Range State Park. Merrick’s mishap occurred late at night when he ascended the hill alone, following a dispute with his girlfriend at the bottom.  The rescue involved 35 firefighters, including members of the department’s technical rescue team, who responded at 11:30 p.m. to the girlfriend’s call. They wrapped things up at 3:30 a.m. Merrick, who sustained minor injuries, left the hill on a stretcher and was transportated by ambulance to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. The cost of his rescue: around $10,000.
Charging Merrick for the rescue “is not something I’m actively pursuing at all, Amherst Town Manager John Musante told the Daily Hampshire Gazette. “Implementing a fee-for-service component—does that have the unintended disincentive for people to call for help when they most need it?” With that said, Musante, who is admired both for his financial acumen and kind-heartedness, may have been primed for his response: he recently spent several months out of circulation after falling  in September while walking his dog.

Still, $10,000 is no bag of shells. A year ago, State Representative Stephen Kulik, a liberal democrat from Worthington, Massachusetts, introduced a bill (H.650) that would allow municipal and state governments to recoup emergency response costs attributable to reckless or intentional behavior. Many of the communities that Kulik represents have more vertical topography than Amherst; they also have tighter resources, making costs tougher to absorb.

A light at the end of the spelunk

But when there's clear negligence, why should the towns foot the entire bill? Consider the 12-hour rescue in 2010, for example,  by Amherst  responders of 25-year old Maya Hersh from a cave in the hills of nearby Leverett. Ms. Hersh got stuck in a cave's narrow orifice. To her discredit, she confessed to having been  stuck and unstuck there before (the first time without emergency assistance).

Whether Kulik's bill becomes law or not, Scott and Maya would do well to read Laurence Gonzales' Deep Survival.
In Survival, the author warns that overconfidence nurtured in the low-risk milieu of home and culture can get us into unforgiving trouble in nature. With dire results, climbers often over-weigh the challenges and goals of ascent while treating descent as an afterthought. Experienced hikers get disoriented in the woods when poor visibility, adverse weather, and other natural forces scramble their mental maps. Skiers  who venture just off the path at ski resorts may encounter frictionless slopes and unstable geology. And unwary swimmers at some of Hawaii's beautiful beaches are just a rip tide away from their final aquatic adventure.

In recent posts, this blog has examined the dangers of other wishful perceptions:  viewing interspecies liaisons as central casting in a peaceable kingdom and experiencing what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls amnesiac vacations.  Happily, we can all learn from Scott and Maya's picaresque adventures. One question  does, however, cry out: Given the lightening learning curves and voracious networking skills of this blog's readers, do we still need a Kulik bill to become a Massachusetts law?


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Community services could perhaps be paid back in community service?


MEC2 said...

Bushwacker -

A novel and commendable concept.

Simon Kenton said...

Colorado adds $0.25 to every hunting license as a search and rescue fee.

Anonymous said...

Someone tell me why we pay taxes. Why
are we paying for services and then
have to pay again and again? Let's
dispense with government workers, hire private companies, and reduce

Martin L. Shoemaker said...

SBW, I think that's brilliant!

It's probably unconstitutional in some way I haven't imagined yet, but it's justice.

Anonymous said...

Is the fire department a private company in the business of generating revenues (and maximizing profits), or is it a taxpayer funded enterprise? What is the purpose of the "technical rescue squad," if not to perform emergency rescues? Were other rescues delayed/not made because every available resource was attending to this rescue? Are such services to go to the highest bidder? Couldn't an effective rescue have occurred with only a dozen responders--with the resultant cost one-third of that claimed by the town manager? Is hiking at night to be prohibited? Will state parks and recreation areas need to be staffed round the clock so as to prevent reckless or intentional behavior--such as hiking?

These are not intended as rhetorical questions, but as a reminder of the unintended consequences of (frivilously contemplating) governments running fee-for-service emergency services. Fire Departments--paid and volunteer professionals--have always responded first, and asked questions after the fact. If local governments find themselves stretched thin for revenues, perhaps they should first look to non-emergency services for economy.

nemesis443 said...

Ah, community service. An escape clause from suffering consequences for your actions. I've got a better idea. Treat the costs like taxes owed. File a lien on the individual who can't or won't pay and garnish their wages. Any payment plan will have higher interest than a bank. You will then be amazed at the ability of people to come up with the money.

Brian Macker said...

People should be paying back for welfare benefits too in the case where it is a forseeable result of their actions that they do not have a job, can't support their children, etc.

ZZMike said...

Nature, like the sea, is allows no mistakes.

However, as a society, we should do what we can to help our less-intelligent brothers.

I think a reasonable approach would be, "The first one is free. The second time, you pay for it. The third time, you're on your own".

I remember a story of a man who was trapped by a boulder out in the wilderness, and escaped by cutting his arm off.

Anonymous said...

I am a volunteer firefighter in a mountainous part of NY. Last winter, we had 20 guys involved in rescuing two jackholes off the side of a mountain with two feet of ice covered snow, in the dark, and the slope was about 70 degrees.

It took 7 hours.

Yeah, there should be a penalty. Maybe a criminal reckless endangerment charge. Or me being allowed to punch them in the face.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's not like these people aren't getting paid anyway... the cost is the same, whether they are hanging out at the station house or on an active "technical rescue".

A better way to deal with the cost is to eliminate the government component, and have everyone pay a "Fire Department Bill" just like we pay electrical bills or other utilities. And yes, I advocate extending this concept to every other "government service" including police, ambulance, and even road upkeep.

And yes, failure to pay your "Fire Bill" means that your house burns down if it catches fire. The department will still show up, to prevent adjoining properties from being damaged by your own idiocy, but your home goes down. Unless you have insurance that will pay the bill for you (which most mortgages will insist on).

Privatize, privatize, privatize... and watch the costs go down, down, down - as you only pay for what is essential, not the half-a hundred million dollars worth of do-nothing government bureaucrats who suck up most of the money the way things are.