The time has come to talk about the double-standard for wilderness search-and-rescue (SAR) that has existed in the state of Alaska for far too long.
Alaska’s budget crisis has brought this to a head with Alaska State Troopers now trying to scare Alaskans into continuing funding for two expensive Eurocopter AS350 helicopters that rescue city folk.
The A-Stars, as they are commonly called, are among 40 aircraft owned by troopers, including six Robinson R-44 helicopters. When two new R-44s were added to the state fleet in 2001, then Public Safety Aircraft Supervisor Steve Elwell was quoted saying that “frankly, they are the best platform we have found for our search and rescue and enforcement missions in Alaska.”
Then came the A-Stars.
The Robinson R-44 is a slow, light, cheap-to-operate, piston-powered helicopter. The A-Star is a sleek, fast, turbine-powered, six-seat, all-weather helicopter that is without doubt better adapted to search-and-rescue operations, although trooper SAR operations in the A-Star have been restricted to daylight hours and good weather since a night-time crash in bad weather destroyed a trooper A-Star and killed all three people aboard.
The smashed helicopter was replaced with two new A-Stars. Troopers dearly want to keep them and are publicly lobbying for funding.
“Lives may be at risk if budget cuts ground AST chopper,” KTVA.com headlined on Tuesday. The claim, which originated with troopers, isn’t quite that of former Gov. Sarah Palin’s “death panels” attack on the government-subsidized health insurance of Obamacare, but there are similarities.
“Budget cuts might mean the difference between life and death for Alaskans who get lost or hurt,” wrote reporter Bonney Bowman, who overlooked the fact that the publicly financed service on which she was reporting is available to only some Alaskans.
Missing from her lead on the story was a key adjective — “urban” — as in urban Alaskans. Ninety percent of the state, the rural and wild part of Alaska, has done without state helicopter assistance forever.
The two A-Stars search for and sometimes rescue urban folk who get lost along the Alaska road system.These people also have access to assistance from the Anchorage-based 210th Rescue Division of the Alaska Air National Guard, one of the most-storied SAR operations in the world, and at least for the injured, the Anchorage-based LifeMed Alaska, which flies two medically equipped A-Stars that regularly retrieve injured Alaskans from the near-road wilderness.
The largely Native people of rural Alaska get no such service. Out there, Alaskans are largely left to cobble together their own SAR operations using ground transport sometimes, but not always, assisted by economical, fixed wing aircraft. Nobody has ever expressed any worries about how rural lives might be threatened by lack of expensive helicopters, or for that matter the lack of state-built trails.
If someone really wants to save some lives, establish a rural trail system that will allow people to travel from village to village overland by snowmachine without having to use rivers with sketchy ice. Marking those trails well wouldn’t hurt either. It would help keep people from getting lost and requiring SAR, which is thankfully more cost-effective in rural Alaska than urban Alaska.
During a 2012 search in the Kotzebue area, Hannah Heimbuch of The Arctic Sounder reported, “the borough dropped off four drums of gas at the ACSR (Arctic Circle Search and Rescue) headquarters in Kotzebue …, which rang in at about $280 apiece. (Rodney) Snyder said he went and bought another $400 in oil. They also stock searchers with extra spark plugs, tools, hand warmers and survival gear. It’s not cheap, and getting the OK from troopers and the borough to stage an official search means the state will likely foot the bill.”
Nothing has changed since then. Rural residents still need to get the “OK,” and that phrase “will likely foot the bill” still translates into “hopefully.” Fourteen hundred dollars to put fuel and oil in the snowmachines of rural search volunteers is, however, cheap compared to what troopers claim as the $1,100 per hour operating cost for one of their A-Stars, if that estimate is correct.
The city of Austin, Texas was in 2013 spending $1,806.43 to operate its A-Star; Dallas, $1,533.33; Fresno, $1,323.23 and Philadelphia, $1,200. It’s hard to believe the state of Alaska is operating its helicopters for less, but anything is possible.
Granted, there is no doubt that trooper helicopter operations have helped save lives over the years. But they have also killed three people — the pilot, a trooper spotter, and a man being rescued in 2013.
Trooper helicopters have also been involved in rescues that appear to make no fiscal sense. Urban Alaskans have been rescued within 750-feet of the McHugh Creek parking lot along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage because they were suffering discomfort from being out in the snow and cold.
The cost effectiveness of trooper helicopter operations have never been examined, either. The Montana Highway Patrol, the equivalent of the troopers, serves a wilderness state with more than one third as many people as Alaska with one helicopter that costs, according to a news report, only $34,000 per year to operate.
Montana SAR operations, however, are not coordinated by the highway patrol but by that state’s Department of Transportation which, according to its web page, “accomplishes the requirements of the air search operations by utilizing Montana Volunteer pilots and their aircraft” and the highway patrol helicopter.
The state of Washington, home to more than 7 million people with access to some still rugged and dangerous wilderness, operates in a manner similar to Montana, although it lists among its “SAR assets” two “King Air multi-engine aircraft, and five Cessna fixed wing aircraft, including two equipped with forward looking infrared (FLIR) cameras.” Costs for fixed-wing aircraft are a fraction of those for helicopters.
As someone who spends more time in the wilderness than most Alaskans, I’d certainly love to have a fleet of helicopters standing by in case I ever need them, but government rescue is a luxury for any of us who venture away from the road system for whatever reason.
We have a choice. We can stay home if we don’t think we can safely go into the wild, or we can accept the age-old dangers which are in reality pretty small and go knowing the Nanny State won’t necessarily be ready to bail us out if something bad happens.
Rural Alaskans have been living the way forever. And with the state budget in serious need of trimming — Alaska faces a $3.5 billion budget gap — Alaskans face tough choices. It might be time for urban Alaskans to take on the same wilderness risks and responsibilities as non-urban Alaskans.