Should people be charged for being rescued?

Who pays for rescues at sea?

Many times, American taxpayers do -- even when people put themselves at risk.

Centuries of maritime tradition and international law require the U.S. government and U.S.-flagged ships to help vessels in distress - no matter who is at fault or the cost.

"It's an expensive business, it's a dangerous business, but it's one we're obligated to do to keep the American public safe and we're going to continue to do that," said Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma.

Somma is a rescue pilot in Miami, the busiest sector in the nation for the Coast Guard. It can cost about $11,000 an hour to fly their choppers. The Coast Guard's largest search aircraft, the C-130, can cost $20,000 an hour to operate.

But the four federal agencies involved in search and rescues - the Coast Guard, the National Park Service, the Defense Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency - will only bill someone if a hoax is involved.

"The last thing we want you to do if you are in distress is to weigh whether or not you can afford it because you're afraid we're going to come after you for reimbursement," said Somma.

But more local governments are asking the people they have to save to pitch in. Eight states - California, Oregon, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Idaho - now allow local authorities to recoup money spent on rescue efforts.

Other states have demanded payment after prolonged search missions. For example, in 2007 Nevada spent more than $1.6 million looking for millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett's plane. The state asked Fossett's family to help pay. A friend contributed $200,000.

The Coast Guard conducted nearly 18,000 search and rescue missions last year around the country. In the Miami area alone, crews saved 1,120 lives.