The pros and cons of being rescued (and having to pay for it)
Published Wednesday, February 6, 2013 9:56AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 6, 2013 10:06AM EST
The case of a southern Ontario man who’s refusing to pay for his rescue after an ice-fishing expedition went wrong is spurring a debate about whether billing those in need of rescue will discourage others from calling for help.
The practice is called "rescue billing" and is meant to recoup the costs that cities and towns incur every time they have to rescue someone from a situation that perhaps they should not have been in.
But not all agree with the practice. Neil Robbescheuten, a retired Oshawa schoolteacher says he plans to fight a $5,400 bill that he recently received from the Lake Scugog fire department, after he had to be rescued while ice fishing two weeks ago.
Robbescheuten says he hadn’t heard the warnings to stay away from "all water bodies" due to mild weather and heavy rainfall in the region issued by Kawartha Conservation two days before he ran into trouble on the lake.
But Robbescheuten says he took the usual precautions he’s always taken in his 30 years of ice fishing and measured the ice to be sure it was more than 12 centimetres thick before stepping onto it.
On the evening he needed rescue, a dense fog rolled in and he became disoriented on the ice and couldn’t make his way back to shore.
"So I waited a little while, I waited about an hour and a half. And then I thought, I’ve got to get off this ice," he told CTV’s Canada AM Wednesday.
He headed toward a marsh, but close to shore he fell through the ice and his boots became stuck in the mud. After several attempts to free himself, he decided to use his cellphone to call a friend for help. Worried they would have the same trouble he had in the mud, he also called 911.
"I said, 'I can’t go through this. I’m going to die right here.' So I called 911 and they arrived about 20 minutes later," he remembers.
Local firefighters went out on the lake in a Zodiac boat and used a rope to pull him back to shore.
Just over a week later, Robbescheuten received a bill that included a $3,750 fee for fire trucks and $1,650 for manpower.
Robbescheuten says the municipality wants the bill paid within 30 days but he doesn’t have that kind of money and would need to save up for two years to pay the bill off.
But he also doesn’t want to pay because he’s worried about what precedent it could set.
"I don’t intend to pay the bill because I can’t and I’ll tell you why: I’m worried that any person who is in danger and is afraid to call 911, I’ll feel the responsibility of that decision, because I’m the first one that Scugog council has invoiced for this," he said.
"This is a precedent-setting case and from now on, people will think about that large sum of money."
He says had he known that he was going to be billed for the rescue, he would have thought twice about calling for help.
While Robbescheuten is worried that invoicing residents will cause others to hesitate before calling for help, not all agree.
"I don’t believe that will actually be the case," Kevin Foster, the president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs told Canada AM.
"I think when people find themselves in situations where their lives are in danger and they require rescuing, they would make those calls."
He notes that not everyone who requires help will face a “rescue bill.” Instead, it will be up to each municipality to determine what they feel is appropriate to invoice, based on the circumstances of the incident.
He adds that each municipality establishes their own fee rates based on how many personnel were needed for the rescue, the apparatus and equipment used, and the hours of training ahead of time.
Foster says the hope is that people will think twice before getting stuck in dangerous situations in the first place.
Robbescheuten said he plans to fight the bill before Scugog council on March 4.