Bill to help reimburse agencies after ice rescues

A bill that would provide financial relief to local law enforcement officials conducting search and rescue operations on unsafe ice received its first hearing last week in the Minnesota Senate.

Senate File 3882, authored by State Senator Justin Eichorn (R-Grand Rapids), would reimburse sheriff’s offices for costs incurred during rescues of individuals who have fallen through frozen lakes. Under current law, sheriff’s offices are eligible for reimbursement from the federal government for open-water rescue operations. That funding does not apply to missions conducted on frozen lakes, rivers, or ponds.

Sen. Eichorn’s bill would provide a reimbursement from the DNR to cover ice rescue costs, providing fairness between the two types of water-related rescue operations.

Sen. Eichorn said he was surprised to learn that this wasn’t done already. “We hear about these issues all the time, every single winter. It should have been changed a long time ago. This is one easy way for us to be a better partner with our counties and sheriffs in this important effort. Thank you to Sheriff Ramsey and Sheriff Welk for coming down to the cities to share why this is so important with the committee.”

Testifying before the Senate Environment, Climate, and Legacy Committee, sheriffs Brian Welk of Cass County and Gordon Ramsay of St. Louis County offered passionate support for the bipartisan proposal.

“This is a common-sense bill,” said Sheriff Welk, who shared a December 2023 incident in which his county’s dive team recovered a drowning victim in Lake of the Woods County but was denied reimbursement because it was an ice rescue rather than open water.

With many northern Minnesota counties containing vast amounts of public land and lacking a sufficient tax base, the Eichorn bill would ease a major financial burden on local law enforcement offices.

“These rescues come at a cost,” Sheriff Ramsay told lawmakers, who added that St. Louis County frequently leads the state in ice rescues and often assists neighboring counties. His office coordinates a 100-plus volunteer team that is often summoned to rescue individuals who break through thin spots.

The bill was laid over and will be considered for a larger environment and natural resources bill later in session. 

Senator Grant Hauschild, (DFL) Hermantown, is also an author on the bill.