Haines Borough officials last week addressed the topic of safety in relation to management of heli-skiing, following concerns raised by the family of a heli-skier killed in an avalanche during a tour in March.
Borough officials said the municipality isn’t responsible for ensuring safety during heli-tours, but they consider a company’s safety record in evaluating tour permit requests and in making allocations of skier days.
Among other questions, Alex and Natalia Dodov have asked why the borough didn’t conduct its own investigation of the March 13 accident. The borough requires heli-ski companies to submit safety plans in order to receive a borough tour permit.
In an interview, Haines Borough Manager Mark Earnest said the safety plan requirement was “a checklist item” similar to when the borough requires a copy of an insurance policy during submittal of a project bid, or a photocopy of a bond. “There isn’t necessarily a vetting or a check that takes place to determine the validity or status of those documents. The company’s insurance company is going to require they have a bond.”
However, in the manager’s report to the borough assembly last week, Earnest said that, by code, “past safety” is a factor to be considered when the borough makes decisions on renewing permits and allocating skier days.
“However, I do not intend to have the borough independently investigate the 2012 avalanche deaths. We do not have the expertise on staff to undertake this type of investigation,” Earnest wrote. If the assembly wants such an investigation, it would have to hire an “outside technical expert,” he wrote.
Alaska Heliskiing, the company involved in the March accident that also killed one of its guides, hasn’t applied for a permit for the coming year. Neither have two other local firms that have held permits in the past.
The question of requiring a safety plan was raised during an assembly committee meeting last week. Member Debra Schnabel suggested the borough eliminate the requirement and instead require companies to sign an affidavit that they have such a plan.
“I don’t believe the borough has any expertise in reviewing a safety plan to determine it meets industry standards. Our only interest is in making sure there’s a safety plan in place,” Schnabel said this week.
She noted that the borough already requires heli-ski companies to provide proof of insurance. “Certainly the insurance company is more qualified to judge whether the safety plan is a good one or not. Why do we need that in our files? We would like them to be responsible and having a plan for safety is a responsible thing to do, but it’s not my expertise to determine whether that plan is adequate,” Schnabel said.
“Why not reduce even an appearance of liability and paperwork by omitting the requirement that they submit a safety plan?” she asked.
Schnabel said Earnest wouldn’t have to investigate the fatal accident in order to incorporate Alaska Heliskiing’s safety record into a decision on a heli-ski permit or numbers of skier days. “You don’t have to investigate it. When somebody dies, they’re not safe. That’s unsafe.”
As to the code language about incorporating a company’s safety record into a decision on renewing a permit or allocating skier days, Schnabel said she was not aware that the municipality has previously kept tabs on those records, such as the number of clients injured while skiing with a given company. “I don’t think we do that now.”
Mayor Stephanie Scott said last week that safety plans are required but not approved by the municipality. She recommends keeping the requirement, however, as a means of providing information to the public.
There appears to be at least one precedent for the borough withholding a tour permit due to safety concerns. The borough denied a tour permit renewal to Dave Button about five years ago, citing numerous safety concerns.
Scott said this week there were many complaints against Button.
“I’m not saying (Alaska Heliiskiing’s) permit isn’t going to be pulled. There’s a gazillion reasons a group could lose their permit. But that decision is an administration decision. That situation is being investigated. And (Alaska Heliskiing) haven’t even asked for (a permit). So, let’s see what happens.”
Earnest declined to comment on whether the safety plan requirement leaves the borough vulnerable to a lawsuit in the event of heli-ski accidents. “I don’t want to speculate on any potential legal issue.”
Asked whether he had asked the borough attorney to check on the borough’s potential risk, Earnest said: “We’ve talked about that in general during development of the (heli-ski) ordinance. I think we’ve had that discussion in the past, but we haven’t spoken directly to that recently. I haven’t had that specific conversation (with the borough attorney). But I may have that conversation.”