AAC Changes to Global Rescue ‘Service’

The American Alpine Club has posted more information on its website about the organization's shift from offering rescue insurance as a member benefit to a rescue 'service' managed by Global Rescue Worldwide.

While AAC's original rescue insurance was hardly a perfect solution, it was one of a very few affordable insurance options—especially for climbers who live in the U.S. The original benefit was automatic for AAC members, and provided (I believe) up to $5000 in rescue insurance to pay for S&R costs associated with climbing accidents. For some climbers, myself included, AAC's insurance benefit made the otherwise pricey $75.00 per year member dues look attractive.

Among the shortcomings of the AAC insurance was its lack of options. You couldn't upgrade to more expansive plans, for example. Additionally, the total payout each year was capped at a specific limit member-wide, meaning if AAC paid out its limit to other members prior to your mishap in any given year, you were out of luck.

This year, AAC has dropped its rescue insurance plan. The replacement is a Global Rescue Service much like the American Auto Club. At least at first, AAC seemed a little overly enthusiastic about Global Rescue, given that it really isn't a true replacement for insurance. However, AAC appears now to recognize that some of us have concerns about the tradeoff, and a few clarifications are now being mentioned which would appear to address the biggest liabilities.

Initially, Global Rescue required that persons in an accident call GRW first in order to receive benefits. Obviously, we can conceive of numerous scenarios in which this might be problematic. AAC now says that GRW will pick up the first $5000 of expenses in the event that other rescue personnel are called first (as in a 911 call), provided GRW is notified during the rescue. That language still seems a little wiggly to me, but it is an improvement.

A big concern remains, however: can one rescue service effectively mount rescue responses across the planet? Notifying local authorities that a rescue is needed just seems like such a patently obvious necessity. Presumably, GRW has developed and maintained relationships and contact numbers for rescue personnel in the thousands of countries and jurisdictions worldwide. But still, if you've ever tried calling AAA in the middle of nowhere, you know that things don't always work as smoothly as advertised.

Based on AAC's change to Global Rescue, I did decide (initially) that the member fee no longer made sense based on my need for rescue insurance. Coincidentally, Find Me Spot was offering highly affordable and robust insurance as part of their new Satellite Messenger product rollout, so I decided to switch over to that. Time will tell whether AAC's move makes sense, or needs further adjustment. For now, here is AAC's frequently asked questions on the subject:

If I sign up for one of Global Rescue’s upgraded services on top of my AAC benefit, will I have the FULL cost of any evacuation (subject to the stated limitations) covered?

As an AAC member, you have two options. The first is the benefit included with your membership: $5000 worth of Global Rescue services (GR absorbs the first $5000 of costs; you pay the rest). When an AAC member chooses the second option and upgrades to the full Global Rescue membership, available either per trip or for an annual term, they are provided with up to $500,000 of rescue and evacuation services. For full Global Rescue members, services don't end at the closest clinic to the trailhead -- members who need to be hospitalized after a rescue can choose to be transported back to their home country hospital of choice. For example, rather than spending a month in the Interlaken Regional Hospital in Switzerland, GR will bring you back home on a medically-equipped aircraft or with a medical team on a commercial flight to be hospitalized close to your friends, family, and own doctors who can provide continuity of care as you recover. Full Global Rescue members also benefit from Global Rescue’s best-in-class medical advisory services, offered in conjunction with partners at Johns Hopkins Medicine, a top-ranked hospital in the U.S. for the last 17 consecutive years. AAC members get a 5% discount on this upgraded service, with plans starting at $119. To sign up for the upgraded service plan, please visit: http://www.globalrescue.com/affinity/AAC/AAC.html.

Do I have to be climbing or ski mountaineering to receive the benefit of the Global Rescue Service? What activities does it cover, and where do I have to be to receive the service that comes with my AAC benefit?

The benefits of Global Rescue Service apply to any land-based backcountry activity (anything beyond the trailhead). GR will coordinate a rescue from the time you are beyond the trailhead and/or in the backcountry until the time you return, provided you initiate the rescue by calling GR’s hotline telephone number. If you choose to upgrade to the full Global Rescue service, offered at a 5% discount through The American Alpine Club, this rescue service only begins once you are at least 160 miles from your home. The basic AAC GR membership does not have this mileage restriction.

Are there restrictions on elevation with the Global Rescue Service? What happens if I am above 6,000 meters? Are there any areas in which Global Rescue will not provide rescue service?

There are no elevation limitations with Global Rescue. Any elevation is eligible for a GR-coordinated evacuation, but understandably GR cannot guarantee rescue in United States’ State Department “Travel Warning List” countries, war zones and/or in places where there's a high chance that the rescue team's lives are in imminent danger. GR will do everything short of endangering additional lives to facilitate rescue in those areas. In places where GR’s team can’t participate directly, they may still be able to help with the coordination and communication. Please remember that the Global Rescue Benefit applies only to rescue and evacuation expenses and does not apply to the search process.

What happens in the event that a call for rescue is placed to local services, rather than Global Rescue? What if a rescue is launched without a call being placed at all?

Global Rescue does ask that the first call is placed directly to GR, but understands that there may be times when an AAC member (or someone else on the member's behalf) simply calls the local "911" number first. In those cases, GR needs to be notified as soon as possible, especially while the rescue is still in process. This will allow Global Rescue to provide full capabilities of logistical support to the mission, forming contingency plans and utilizing a full team of evacuation experts. A family member or companion may also make the call to Global Rescue on the member's behalf. When notified in a timely manner before or during a rescue mission, part of Global Rescue's benefit to the AAC is that GR will absorb the first $5,000 worth of rescue-generated costs. It is in your best interest to get GR in the loop as early as possible and that means educating next of kin, partners and guides by providing them with instructions and the GR number prior to engaging in the activity. What may potentially become difficult is if GR is contacted after everything has already played out. Global Rescue is not an insurance provider, but rather a rescue service, more similar to AAA’s roadside assistance than to collision coverage.

Should your rescue be completed without Global Rescue assistance, please contact the AAC to report your rescue and to be advised on your options.

How does this work if I am out of the country?

If you are out of the country you will still need to contact GR to expedite the rescue process. This service is exceptional when coordinating rescue outside of the U.S. where language barriers and geopolitical concerns may weigh on time. If placing an international call will be difficult, be sure to educate your next of kin or emergency contact ahead of time that he or she will need to call the GR rescue hotline number.

Also, it is important to stress to AAC members the essential responsibility of educating yourself on local processes and procedures when climbing internationally. Ahead of time, be sure to know how to dial an international call, and how to even begin communication for a rescue in your specific climbing location. Every country and region can be quite different, and preparing ahead of time will prove worthwhile in an emergency situation.

How do I contact Global Rescue if I am in the mountains with no phone service?

As is the case in any backcountry rescue or evacuation situation, a rescuer may first have to travel to a place where a rescue phone call or communication can be placed. If the first phone call or rescue communication for some reason does not go to Global Rescue, be sure to involve GR as early as possible.

As an AAC member with the eligibility for GR’s service, make sure your partners and/or team members know that you have this service, and know the number to call. It may be worthwhile to store the number in team members’ cell phones before the start of the trip.

Is the Global Rescue hotline phone number staffed 24/7?

The hotline is staffed 24/7 and is made up of former Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and other experts at organizing and coordinating extraction efforts in complicated scenarios.

Does Global Rescue have the infrastructure to respond to emergencies as quickly and reliably as calling 911 or a local EMS system? Will there be a delay by adding a “middle man?”

Global Rescue’s response team, as described above, has a very extensive network and can coordinate a rescue and provide guidance to the process that can make it quicker and more reliable. GR will almost certainly collaborate with the local rescue service, but you will be relying on experienced professionals who can not only coordinate the rescue based on the extent of the emergency, but also form contingency options in the event of unexpected roadblocks.

Is The American Alpine Club switching to Global Rescue as opposed to Rescue Insurance in order to save money?

It actually costs the club more to provide the Global Rescue service to our members than it did to provide rescue insurance. The AAC’s goal is to provide a service that gives additional value to members and helps keep the climbing community safer. The club is far more interested in saving your life than insuring it; essentially, we want you to come home alive.

The switch to the new service is designed to benefit the greatest amount of members in complicated situations both domestically and internationally. There may be times where you feel that it is appropriate to supplement this program with additional services (for example, purchasing the upgraded Global Rescue plan), but the AAC thinks that you will find real value in using the Global Rescue service.

As an AAC member, I am eligible for the first $5,000 of Global Rescue’s services. Are Global Rescue’s services more costly than local rescue providers, considering overhead or administrative costs?

Global Rescue is not in the business of marking up rescue services. When coordinating a rescue, Global Rescue will charge for the time and effort of staff, but the fee is usually quite nominal compared to the full cost of rescue. Some situations will require a high level of logistics coordination while others may require very little.

It is worth noting that typical fees for rescue operations (on a “fee-for-service” basis) can be quite high, considering the costs of aircraft fuel, medical personnel, etc. If traveling to an area where an evacuation may prove extensive and costly beyond the $5000 benefit, AAC members are encouraged to take advantage of the 5% discount on an upgraded service from GR, in which $500,000 of services are provided.

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents