The Cost of Rescue: Why Carnival Shouldn’t Pay and the U.S. Shouldn’t Accept

Coast Guard Responds to Carnival Splendor in 2010.
Coast Guard Responds to Carnival Splendor in 2010.  (photo: USCG –  Jetta Disco)

Should people pay for rescue when it’s their fault?  I get asked that question often.  For years I was on a team that went out to the end result of someone else’s bad decision and saved their backside – at great expense to the taxpayer I might add.   So it makes sense that I would think that the costs of those rescues should be recovered, right?  Well, I don’t.  Not at all. Not even a little.

The last thing I would want is to know that a family was out there in real danger, in a fight between their brain and their wallet trying to figure out  if they can afford to call “Mayday.”  Deciding when it’s time to call for help is difficult enough without adding the pressure of a crushing bill.  People already wait too long to call when things get bad.  Charging for rescue would only ensure that they will call even later – increasing their risk and that of their rescuers – and fewer lives would be saved.

But what about Carnival Cruise Lines and the massive operations to rescue the Splendor and Triumph? It was obviously their fault, and the rescues were  expensive to the taxpayers. Surely charging them is a good idea, right?  Again, I don’t think so.  Not even a little.

What’s Going On Out There?

When anything goes wrong at sea, the Coast Guard refers to it as a “casualty.”  Marine casualties may result in death, but more often than not the word is used to describe other mishaps like fire, running aground, colliding with another ship, or experiencing a loss of propulsion or power.  Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) wanted to know how often these things happen and in a letter to Admiral Papp, asked (among other things) for a list of large passenger vessel casualties that the Coast Guard had responded to in recent years.  The list didn’t look good for Carnival.

After receiving the list, Rockefeller wrote to Carnival’s CEO, Micky Arison, with valid points. Carnival ships have experienced what looks like more than their fair share of casualties (over 90 in five years) and responding to them – during rescues and/or investigations – costs money.  What they are doing to decrease the number of casualties and make their ships safer is an important question.  But asking them to pay the costs of specific rescue operations is – in my opinion – a bad idea.  Not only should they not have to pay for the Coast Guard involvement in the cases of Splendor and Triumph, but the senator shouldn’t have asked, and the U.S. shouldn’t accept it if they do.

The Numbers

First of all, the numbers are off.  In addition to the list of casualties for Carnival ships, Sen. Rockefeller also asked the Coast Guard’s Commandant for the costs associated with the Splendor and Triumph rescues; they were $1,541,904.53 and 779,914.26 respectively, with an additional $1,884,376.75 for the Navy’s response to Splendor that, I assume, includes the cost of the food flown over from the USS Ronald Reagan.   With the exception of that food – which the Navy didn’t purchase with plans to hand it over to cruise patrons –  the other costs aren’t as real as they might appear.

Whenever someone asks what a rescue operation “costs,” the numbers are arrived at by taking the  hours a boat or aircraft was engaged in the rescue and multiplying that by the cost per hour for those assets.   Those numbers are found in Commandant Instruction 7310.1N –  which sets the standard reimbursable rates for all Coast Guard equipment. So for every hour the USCGC Vigorous was on the Triumph case, the cost was $6,718 dollars per.  Aviation assets can be even more expensive.  Helicopter time of the MH-60 variety, for example, is assessed at over $14,000 per hour.  These amounts include everything from the cost of fuel to the manpower aboard, from the depreciation of the asset to the administrative costs.  And there is my first problem with billing for rescue operation: in all but the most extreme cases (Katrina, Deepwater, etc.), we were spending that money, anyway.

Always Ready Doesn’t Mean Always Waiting

The U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t run like an ambulance service.  While there are rescue teams standing by twenty-four hours a day, they aren’t always just sitting there.  That’s because every profession in the service has proficiency requirements.  Pilots need to fly so many hours in a variety of conditions, flight mechanics need to perform a certain number of hoists per month, and swimmers need to leave the aircraft (by jumping or being lowered) a minimum of six times every month, or they aren’t qualified anymore.

Proficiency requirements are set for boat drivers and boarding teams as well.  Often these minimum requirements are met not during training evolutions but during actual at-sea emergencies. Many Coast Guard assets are budgeted to operate a set number of hours per year and whether these are out on training missions or out saving lives, the hours are going to be spent.  It isn’t as if the crew of the cutter or the pilots flying the aircraft weren’t getting paid that week, but since Triumph caught fire we “taxpayers” had to ante up.

The math isn’t as simple as hours times cost.  The rescue of Splendor did not cause the Coast Guard to go 1.5 million in the hole in 2010.  When a mariner calls for rescue and a helicopter flies out to save them, there is definitely increased risk, but those hours were going to be flown anyway. The crews were getting paid anyway.  That reality needs to find its way into any discussion about what a rescue might actually “cost.”

Coast Guard 378
The Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau – $17,602 per hour. Or is it?

Can They Bill Us?

If a government can bill Carnival for the costs incurred during a rescue, can Carnival bill the government for performing a rescue for us?   In the last ten years, sometimes at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard, Carnival ships were involved in the at-sea rescue of  126 people.  Carnival – like almost every other cruise ship in the world – participates in AMVER – the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System. When called, member ships drop everything and head towards rescue.

So if the government can charge $17,000 per hour for a  Coast Guard 378 foot cutter, how much can Carnival charge the government for the Carnival Conquest?  At 953 feet with 1,150 crew aboard, I’m guessing that it’s a few dollars more than $17,000.  Add in the reasonable expense of refunds to the 2,900 passengers for possible lost port calls and we may find ourselves in a game we don’t want to play.  Make no mistake, when Conquest (as an AMVER participant) pulls migrants off a raft they are spending their money to support U.S. Coast Guard operations.

Precedence

Yesterday – in a reversal from their position on Friday – Carnival caved and said they would be paying us back for the rescues.

“I’m glad to see that Carnival owned up to the bare minimum of corporate responsibility by reimbursing federal taxpayers for these two incidents,” Sen. Rockefeller said.

Personally, I think it was a decision less about a sense of responsibility and more about buying their way out of a fight and negative publicity.  Money well spent, perhaps, but that doesn’t make it legal.

What will the Treasury Department  do with the money?  There are laws in place to bill for Coast Guard costs associated with oil spills and damages to aids to navigation, but I haven’t seen any regulations governing the cost of rescue and how bills to mariners (private and commercial) should be handled.  If Senator Rockefeller believes there should be such laws, he should propose a bill -but good luck to him on setting a standard.

Let’s assume for a minute that we take Carnival’s money as compensation for the rescue that was necessary because of their alleged negligent operations;  do we go back now and send bills for all rescues that were needed when it was the mariner’s fault?

Rescue and Blame Don’t Mix

When a father takes his son out fishing and runs aground in the bayou because he isn’t paying attention, the grounding is definitely his fault.  But his son is diabetic and dad didn’t bring the insulin, so instead of waiting for the tide to rise, the father calls “Mayday.” (This happens at least once a year.)  The Coast Guard is definitely going to save the kid.  But it was his father’s fault.  He should pay for it. What will that cost?  Let’s see:

One H-65 Dolphin = $11,216 per hour

Four hours = $44,864.00

I guess we can set up payment plans.

What about the medevac of a Maersk  employee for a possible heart attack 130 miles from shore?  It wasn’t the American taxpayer who decided to head offshore in rough weather with a bad ticker.  What would that kind of rescue bill out at?

One C-130 (required to fly cover on rescues over 100 miles from shore) = $18,116 per hour

One H-60  = $14,519

Total cost  for four hours = $130,540

I wonder how many Maersk ships have come to the aid of mariners in distress over the years and how much they spent doing it?

Perhaps Carnival’s position on Friday was correct; maybe we should all “honor maritime tradition that holds that the duty to render assistance at sea to those in need is a universal obligation of the entire maritime community.”

We Already Have Fines for Negligence

In each of those 90 casualties aboard Carnival ships that were investigated by the Coast Guard since 2008, the government had an opportunity to say, “This was your fault – it was negligence – and here is your fine for doing something wrong.”  The Coast Guard detains and fines foreign ship owners all the time. Maybe the answer for Carnival is not about creating a law that would make them responsible to cover the cost of rescue, but rather about our inability or unwillingness to enforce the laws already in place?

Like so many things in government, what seems reasonable on the surface is decidedly more complex when you really take a look.  The issue is not as simple as assigning blame and sending a bill.