The price of a rescue

We should have been able to sit back, appreciate the beauty from afar and enjoy the blessing of rain.

By THE JERUSALEM POST: EDITORIAL
January 28, 2010 11:44
3 minute read.
Stormy weather hits Jerusalem Monday.

Stormy weather jerusalem 311 AJ. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

For the past 10 days, like everybody else, Israelis have been turning on their televisions to witness the collapse of Haiti, and the effort there to save lives and somehow start to rebuild. A much smaller swath of destruction has garnered secondary headlines here, as winter rains wreaked havoc on Negev infrastructure, washing out roads, electrical cables and water supplies. News reports included awe-inspiring shots of flash floods in the canyons of the Negev and the Arava.

We should have been able to sit back, appreciate the beauty from afar and enjoy the blessing of rain.

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The volunteers who staff Israel's civilian rescue teams, particularly in the Negev, could afford no such relaxed contemplation, however. Those teams of well-trained hikers and four-wheel-drivers paired up with the IAF's elite 669 aerial rescue unit to pull numerous thrill-seekers out of raging torrents.

For at least a day before the flood waters raced across the desert, pouring down out of the Negev highlands with the force of a train, radio stations had warned that there was a "serious danger" of flash flooding. As the rain fell, the reports took a direr tone, urging drivers to stay clear of specific roads. Unfortunately, instead of deterring people from entering the danger zone, these warnings may actually have encouraged them.

The most tragic consequence was for the Fugel-Hochman family: A brother and sister were killed when their jeep was swept downstream in the raging waters of Nahal Arava. A second brother escaped with light injuries. The search for Yoram Hochman lasted almost 24 hours, before his body was found in a minefield near the Jordanian border. IDF combat engineers had to be deployed to disable the mines so that rescuers could reach the body.

Police said afterwards that the road on which the jeep attempted to cross the stream's floodwaters was a secondary access road, and that the only reason anyone would have been using it would seem to have been a desire to meet a flash flood face-to-face. Still, reports differ as to whether or not the deceased were specifically warned not to enter the stream of water that flowed in Nahal Arava.

THERE IS no reason to discourage people in general from visiting Israel's natural sites, even during floods, but when specific warnings are issued, they should not be ignored. Some "adventurers," however, apparently regard warnings as mere recommendations.

The price that they sometimes pay is not only exacted from themselves and their families, but is also shouldered by Israel's civilian rescue teams. Search-and-rescue (SAR) volunteers operate at the expense of their work hours, use their private vehicles, donate their weekends to training, receive just a small sum as reimbursement for gas and vehicle expenses, and put their lives in danger.

Relying on the kindness of strangers, the government budgets a total of NIS 3 million annually for equipment and training for all of Israel's civilian SAR teams, from the Golan Heights to Eilat. The cost is also shouldered by the IDF and the police, with each helicopter deployment costing thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of shekels.

If radio warnings and park service alerts fail to convince, perhaps it is time for the money to do the talking - for people to have to pay for their rescue. Just as Israelis choosing to enter Palestinian-controlled areas sign a waiver revoking their right to be rescued should they meet trouble, those who disregard specific personal safety warnings should know that civilian volunteers, however well-intentioned, and taxpayers, will not shoulder the financial burden of their irresponsible choices.

In Europe, many countries refuse to give hikers mountaineering permits if they have not purchased climbers' rescue insurance. In the US, local governments and states have started to charge for rescues. Along with criminal charges, the Heene "balloon boy" family were presented with a bill for $42,000 in rescue fees.


Critics here claim such a policy would deter those who really need help from calling for it. But the fees charged to those who go to hospital emergency rooms or call an ambulance without meeting the appropriate terms have produced no such deterrent effect.

Of course, those who have taken reasonable precautions and heeded safety guidelines should not be penalized. Accidents sometimes happen even to the best-prepared people.

Rescue fees would benefit everybody - the rescue teams and the would-be adventurers who might just think twice. The next time the storm clouds roll through, we might all be able to appreciate the blessing of rain and worry less about the cost in human lives.


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