Lt. Roderick Bersamina, a spokesman for the California Air National Guard, agreed: "Bottom line, you can't put a price on life.''
Only a few states, including Oregon, Maine and Idaho, allow local agencies to bill for rescues in cases of recklessness, deceit or illegal activity. Many outdoor and rescue organizations have lobbied against such search and rescue fees, saying they only make things worse.
Military and civilian experts agreed that collecting for rescue services sounds easier and smarter than it is. They cited these problems:
• It can be hard to prove the adventurer was at fault. As Bersamina put it, "Who wants to put themselves in danger? No one means to do that.'' Adventurers aren't always as foolhardy as they might seem and don't always admit they were wrong. One person's adventure is another's folly – and possibly a question for courts to resolve.
• It can be hard to collect. "They're not going to be writing you a check when you pick them up in the helicopter,'' said Bryan Enberg, chairman of the Appalachian region of the Mountain Rescue Association, a national volunteer group.
• It can scare off those who need help. The fear of being billed may deter people who need help from seeking it until it's too late -- or late enough to create additional risks and challenges for rescuers, as night descends or a storm worsens.
This argument has been used effectively by rescue groups to lobby against state laws allowing agencies to recover costs from those they rescue. "We'd rather have them call for help than not call,'' said Kevin Adam, a lieutenant in the Maine Warden Service and the state search and rescue coordinator.
• Rescue operations are good training. Missions such as the family's rescue in the Pacific "allow us to hone our skills for combat missions,'' Bersamina said.
About 60% of those rescued by the Cal Air Guard's elite Guardian Angel pararescue unit are civilians, ranging from Chinese fisherman in mid-ocean to recreational sailors such as the Kaufmans, the San Diego family rescued over the weekend.
Enberg said military and police organizations routinely write off involvement in such missions as training exercises.