HONOLULU — The Hawaii Senate is reconsidering allowing county emergency departments to charge out-of-bounds hikers for rescue costs as government spending remains under pressure because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A Senate bill would allow counties to issue criminal fines in addition to seeking reimbursement from hikers requiring rescue after leaving marked trails or ignoring "closed" or "no trespassing" signs, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Sunday.
The bill also would add new petty misdemeanor penalties for hiking illegally.
A revised version of a different Senate bill would only give counties the option of seeking reimbursement.
Hikers across the islands every year are rescued by county police and fire departments using helicopters and other equipment in costly operations that can risk the lives of their personnel.
A Honolulu Fire Department helicopter searching for a missing hiker crashed in 1995, killing the pilot and two Honolulu police officers.
Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, provided written testimony supporting the original bill that only seeks repayment.
Repayment requirements could increase the motivation to follow posted rules, but also discourage people from seeking help, Case said.
Similar bills previously were introduced in the House and Senate, but the current strain on government resources because of the pandemic adds new motivation, Democratic state Sen. Chris Lee said.
"It's an issue that has been brought up in the past in a number of ways, especially in times when budgets are thin and resources are limited," Lee said. "It's a discussion that everybody is interested in having this year."
The city's fire department opposes seeking rescue reimbursement.
"The Honolulu Fire Department does not want to deter anyone from calling 911, thinking there is going to be a cost associated with them getting help," spokesman spokesman Carl Otsuka said.
The department conducted 229 land rescues last year, including 181 classified as "high angle rescues" on steep terrain.
"We do not distinguish between people who go off trails and people who stay on the trails and follow the rules," Otsuka said.