There are quite a few articles (for example, here and here) on rescue beacons found in desert regions of the USA near the Mexican border. The articles above (as well as others), come out and admit that the primary use case for these beacons is for persons who have entered the USA unlawfully and have gotten lost or stuck in the desert. If a person pushes the button, they get rescued from the desert but are a sitting duck for deportation, which typically follows as soon as the person is stable.

My question is, what happens if someone lawfully in the US pushes the button at one of these beacons and stays around for a rescue? For example, let's say that some US citizens are out hiking in the Arizona desert near the border, get lost and dehydrated, and decide to push the button. What actually is supposed to happen to them?

Yes, I realize that these beacons are placed in wilderness areas where there isn't a lot of lawful activity (so the vast majority of people who end up there are going to be undocumented anyway), but I'm curious if there is an official or de-facto procedure when someone turns up who is lawfully in the US.

  • Does the person get rescued and unceremoniously dumped in the nearest town?
  • Does the person get sent home with a big bill for the rescue?
  • Does the person get charged anyway with some non-immigration offense?
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    Would it be any different from just calling 911?
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Jan 12, 2022 at 23:58
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    You seem to presume that being in the wilderness near the border is unusual and/or unlawful. That would come as a surprise to many people I know (although the deer hunters will say they see more Border Patrol agents than deer where they've drawn tags). In my state, the search and rescue folks will happily take them back to civilization. No different than me pulling the cord on my PLB, really.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 0:04
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    @PeterM oh that’s a very standard occurrence here in Seattle where people get lost while hiking. There’s a big mountain rescue organization composed of volunteers and sometimes it does take up multiple days. You can get great reception sometimes from really dangerous mountain hikes so reaching 911 would be the least of your problems.
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 0:43
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    @PeterM If you push the button there's no search involved, thus no large number of people. Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 4:01
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    @JonathanReez That's nice that near Seattle you can take strolls where there is cell service. I can go 5 miles from my front door and have zero cell service. And as for volunteers, who funds their equipment? Their training? And their organization? There will always be an underlying cost for SAR even if the majority of the manpower is free.
    – Peter M
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 4:08

1 Answer 1


I'm going to take this form the point of view of a generalized Search and Rescue as I feel it is the equivalent of someone activating a personal Locator Beacon in order to call someone to come and get them.

From some quick googling, who foots the bill for SAR differs depending on what state you are in. In a lot of states it is free. But in other states you can be charged - because the state wants to reduce the number of people taking a risk and reduce the cost of SAR operations (One example I've seen is skiers deliberately skiing out of bounds being charged)

I found this blog from 2018 that is Arizona specific. It says in part:

In Arizona, a state fund covers 50% of the first $1000 cost of a rescue, 75% of the next $20,000, and 100% of the rest.

So it looks like you could be up for a $5,000 bill in AZ.

Also see this Great Outdoors question Who gets the bill if you activate a PLB to help someone else?

Here is another perspective on costs in general

In the U.S., whether you have to pay depends on where exactly you are when you get into trouble. In any of the national parks, the government picks up the tab for your rescue. The National Park Service spends nearly $5 million annually on search and rescue (SAR) missions and that doesn't include the cost of hundreds of thousands of man hours that go into these searches. Yet unless rescuees violated a park rule — like trespassing into a protected archeological site, for example — they aren't responsible for the cost.


In Wyoming’s Teton County, home to Jackson Hole resort, the search and rescue crew works in conjunction with the county sheriff. Each year, they conduct an average of 70 rescues, according to Doug Meyer, the area's SAR coordinator. And even though most of the rescuers are volunteers, costs can still add up for equipment and resources — such as leasing a helicopter, and maintaining ropes and radios. "We only get back about 20% of that cost," Meyer estimates. They do charge for helicopter flight time, which runs at about $1,600 per hour, but there is no strict enforcement of payment


In New Hampshire, officials are already doing just that. A decade-old law charging people for the costs of their rescue if the behavior that got them into the mess was deemed "reckless" was rewritten this past summer, lowering the bar so that merely "negligent" behavior could saddle you with a bill.

FYI I carry a PLB when I'm the wilderness, and if I need to use it, I'm activating it and not even thinking of the cost.

  • Although rescue insurance is pretty cheap through, say, the American Alpine Association. I would not hesitate to activate mine as well. Why carry it if you don't want to use it?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 0:05
  • @JonCuster What's funny for me is that the "wilderness" is literally 5 miles from my front door. 200 sq miles of zero cell phone service, and I can be there the entire day and not see anyone else.
    – Peter M
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 0:24
  • Indeed, although I need to go a bit more than 5 miles. Lots of people don’t realize just how empty the southwest is.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 0:55
  • Would the fact the rescuers are Federal make a difference. One of your linked articles says that rescues by the coastgaurd are free and those by the National Park service normally are. Is that a general policy among Federal agencies. Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 1:49
  • Check around your quote! "Al pointed out that, unlike some states, Arizona does not charge victims for their own rescues. This policy is for the victim's own safety, encouraging them to get help right away, but lessens the danger to rescuers as well by, for example, reducing nighttime searches. In Arizona, a state fund covers 50% of the first $1000 cost of a rescue, 75% of the next $20,000, and 100% of the rest." Commented Jan 13, 2022 at 4:03

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