The traprock cliffs of central Connecticut — including those in Southington, Meriden and other nearby towns — tend to attract adventurous climbers from far and wide, and have been doing so since as far back as the 1930s, if not earlier. The cliffs are part of our geological inheritance, and few would have it otherwise. Without them, what would this state look like — Kansas?
But all adventure involves risk, and the big risk that climbers take is that they may fall. Then, if they live, they may need to be rescued.
That’s where local fire departments come in, and over the years they’ve done a magnificent job when called upon to retrieve climbers from those peaks, at great risk to themselves.
Now, though, the idea has been raised that maybe the departments should be reimbursed for such rescues. Rescuing rock climbers requires specialized training and equipment, after all, and can lead to injuries. Southington Fire Chief Harold Clark said recently that he believes the associated costs should be paid by the climbers — who, naturally, tend to be against the idea of paying, and point to how rarely such rescues are actually needed. (Please see letter on this page.)
At first glance, charging for rescues would seem to make sense — why should a town have to cover the cost of rescuing people who have deliberately put themselves in danger? But soon that reasoning starts to crumble.
If rock climbers are responsible for their own problems, then aren’t hikers and bicyclists and ATV riders and skiers also putting themselves at risk? And shouldn’t they, too, have to pay for any necessary rescue? We may naturally think that because firefighters spend more time responding to house fires and car crashes than to injuries on the mountain, the former are “real” emergencies, while the latter are not. But is that true?
How many house fires each year are caused by people who plug too many Christmas lights into overloaded electrical circuits? Or by people falling asleep while smoking? Some years back, there was an apartment fire in Southington caused by a woman who lit up a cigarette while using oxygen. Should she have had to pay for putting the fire out? Some drivers, too, cause crashes through bad, sometimes even criminal, behavior. Will they be billed?
Are the people who cause these situations that require an emergency response by the fire department somehow less to blame than the guy who falls on the mountain? Shouldn’t they, too, have to pay the town back for emergency services?
“Of course not” may be our first thought — “that’s what fire departments are for.” But what is the difference, exactly, between rescuing a climber from a cliff and rescuing a careless smoker from a burning house? Didn’t both of them cause their own problems? Should one have to pay, and the other not? And once the reimbursement idea is on the table, does that mean a town resident who falls on the mountain will be rescued at no charge, but an out-of-towner will have to pay?
Southington leaders may be able to see both sides of the issue, but it’s bound to come up again, and in other towns as well.
There are no easy answers to these questions — especially with municipal budgets as strained as they are right now and probably will continue to be for the immediate future — but any town with a mountain or two inside its borders is probably thinking about them.
Or will be, soon enough.