Do missions with a rescue helicopter have to be paid for? It is said to have happened in Ebensee in the Höllengebirge in the Salzkammergut (Austria): two German mountaineers asked for information from the mountain rescue team during their descent in the Alps and were sent a helicopter. But they didn’t want to get in. Who is responsible and pays the costs for such missions?

Helicopter rescue rejected

According to press reports, the mountaineers dialed the emergency number to ask for directions [1]. They are said to have been very well equipped. However, the two had refused further help, in particular pick-up by helicopter. „It happens more often that mountaineers want information but no help,“ said the ORF, referring to the police. Other press reports confirm this [see also ORF].

Who pays the cost of a helicopter mission

The press reports are mostly poor. They do not allow for a binding legal assessment. Nevertheless, the legitimate question arises: Who actually pays for helicopter missions? The answer is typical for lawyers: It depends on the concrete individual case. There is a lot of speculation, in fact there is no general answer to the question.

From a legal point of view, further questions need to be asked.

Where was the mission carried out?
Who was involved in the mission?
Who is the carrier of the helicopter?
Who initiated the mission?
What did the emergency call involve?
On what basis did the person make the emergency call?
Was the mission necessary to the extent?
Was a patient cared for and transported?

The questions aren’t conclusive. They are only intended to show the legal complexity that combined rescue operations can develop, especially in mountain rescue, sea rescue, but also in ordinary rescue operations. Differences already arise from where the operation was carried out and who was involved. Thus, in addition to private rescue helicopters (e.g. ADAC, DRF, REGA or ÖAMTC), those of the state police or the federal government (e.g. SAR/federal police) can also be deployed.

Germany, Austria, Switzerland or Italy?

Police and rescue services, including mountain rescue, are initially the responsibility of the Länder. So it makes a fine difference whether the operation took place in a German, Austrian, Italian or Swiss federal state, canton or region or in a completely different country. A distinction would then have to be made between EU countries and third countries.

Thus different legal bases already apply.

Legality of use

The legality of the implementation therefore depends on the respective national law. The right to use police helicopters is governed by the respective laws regulating the tasks of the police. The right of rescue helicopters according to the respective rescue service laws of the federal states. Helicopters can also be used for purposes other than the actual tasks within the scope of administrative assistance.

Alpine helicopter rescue offers numerous possibilities. Above all rescue even in rough terrain, short arrival times, fast supply, gentle transport even over long distances. But it also has its limits.[2]

The control centres can also schedule doctor-staffed rescue helicopters for „normal“ operations. This may be the case if no ground based alternative is available within the required time. The helicopter simply has a larger and faster operating radius. The helicopter flies, for example, if the ground-based emergency doctor is tied for another mission and the next emergency doctor has a too long journey time. Capacity bottlenecks in the emergency rooms and long distances can also speak against ground-based transport. In 2017, rescue helicopters flew approx. 107,000 missions in Germany (approx. 2 % of all rescue missions), 53 % of which were internal missions[3].

A nearby rescue station alone is not enough to ensure that it is occupied. A nearby doctor’s office or hospital is not an alternative if they are not on emergency duty anyway: The doctors would have to have an emergency doctor qualification and the necessary equipment. This would mean that they would have to be taken to the scene of the emergency.

Always dial 112 in an emergency

112 is the single emergency number throughout Europe for serious or life-threatening injuries or illnesses. Rescue coordination centres usually have a list of the nearest regular resources available.

The police can also be reached under 110. The medical on-call service as a substitute for the family doctor is available at night, on weekends and holidays in Germany under the telephone number 116117.

Decision of the control centre dispatcher

The dispatchers of the rescue control centres must request all the necessary information and make a decision in the shortest possible time: In the event of an emergency. If so, which rescue equipment is required? For this purpose, the dispatcher can usually rely on a computer-aided alarm and deployment plan, checklists or Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

The alerting suggestions result from certain operation keywords. The dispatcher may of course deviate from these in justified cases, but must then justify himself. In case of doubt, a dispatcher will initiate the alerting of the resources required to save life, even in order not to expose himself later to his own professional and liability consequences. It may not decide arbitrarily naturally.

Callers usually use an amateur word choice, speak unclearly or another language, or find in the excitement simply not the correct words. This does not really make it easier to distinguish between real emergencies. The dispatcher can rarely rely on the „medical“ initial assessment of the caller; he rarely knows the caller nor his qualifications.

Dispatchers would probably also have an easier life if the callers were to raise the inhibition threshold for emergency calls, at least in obvious cases: Telephone information – such as information on the nearest pharmacy, route guidance and more – offers commercial service providers. If the caller describes a supposedly life-threatening situation in the mountains, the threshold for alerting the appropriate resources is obvious.

Who bears the costs

Whether and to what extent the costs are also imposed on the polluter is regulated differently in the provisions of national law. In principle, this is possible. In the case of misuse, no costs are usually charged. This would also make no sense, as otherwise, despite legal obligations, no one would be prepared to alert the emergency call. But beware: intentional misuse can usually be charged. In addition, most countries contain rules on the misuse of emergency calls that have been tried and tested for criminal prosecution or fines, cf. e.g. § 145 StGB. Even the abuse of a rescue helicopter as a „canyon taxi“ is no fun.

Whether the costs of a real rescue mission will be charged, is also determined by state law. This also applies to emergency patients transported by helicopter. In most cases, the costs of medical emergency operations in Germany and other EU countries are covered by the respective private or statutory health insurance. Whether the insurance also covers rescue in other countries or recovery without a medical background depends on the respective tariff.

The costs for the helicopter operation are usually invoiced according to flight minutes. In addition, there are the costs for other rescue personnel who may be involved in such an operation.

Legal questions

When advising authorities and organisations with safety tasks, including air rescue, we rather deal with questions of approval and licensing, as well as the assessment of operational processes, communication and digitisation. This also includes telemedicine issues. Billing issues are more likely to be addressed when assessing workflow processes. Of course, occasionally the checking of a bill is also virulent.