With the boating season fast approaching, the U.S. Coast Guard is reminding mariners that making a hoax distress call or indiscriminately shooting off flares are more than simply practical jokes gone bad, they are also expensive.
And not to be forgotten, illegal.
So much so that making a false hoax call to the Coast Guard can result in a fine of up to $10,000, a 10-year prison sentence, or both. Oh, and possibly being told by a federal judge to pony up reimbursement money to the Coast Guard which is required to respond to every call for help.
Those kinds of expenses can accumulate quickly, too, says the Coast Guard. A distress call search using an HC-130 Super Hercules fixed-wing aircraft costs approximately $15,000 per hour. And a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter operates at approximately $10,000 per hour, the Coast Guard says.
As for a boat rescue search, that sort of activity tops out at approximately $5,000 per hour, says the Coast Guard as well.
And about 30-percent of the fake calls the Coast Guard receives are made by children who do not know the implications of their actions. the agency says as well.
Thus making a hoax distress call is no laughing matter, says Petty Office Brian McCrum, spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Ninth District, headquartered in Cleveland.
The Ninth District covers all five of the Great Lakes and portions of eight states. Its 6,000 personnel – active duty, reserve forces and auxiliary volunteers – are responsible for 6,700 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, a length greater than the country’s entire Eastern Seaboard, are positioned in 80 stations and crew eight helicopters and 202 vessels, McCrum says.
“The Coast Guard treats all emergency calls as if they were real until they can be proved otherwise,” McCrum said. “A hoax mayday case can sometimes last an average of three hours before it is called off.”
Thing is, McCrum acknowledges, hoax distress calls are time-consuming. They also do not just take away personnel they likewise drain the agency’s financial assets; funds that should be going to the “Coast Guard’s actual and main mission,” McCrum says.
McCrum says too that hoax calls can involve bringing in the assets of Canada’s Great Lakes’ Coast Guard contingency; consequently tapping into that nation’s bank account.
“We really push the need to be vigilant during the summer months,” McCrum said.
McCrum said that last year by mid-June alone the Coast Guard’s Ninth District had fielded on the order of 160 total false distress calls, each one requiring a Coast Guard response.
“That was up from the 55 false distress calls for the same period in 2015,” McCrum said. “Those kinds of calls are not only expensive and time-consuming, they can and do put our personnel at risk.”
Going hand-in-glove with hoax distress calls is the shooting off of flares; the type of visual signaling activity that alerts the Coast Guard directly or causes a citizen to call in a reported sighting that may not be a real distress situation.
In one case in 2017 in the Coast Guard’s Seventh District (comprising Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Puerto Rico) responded to a false flare sighting that required the use of a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft and a small boat search crew. The total expense for this ultimately unnecessary response cost more than $43,000.
What should not be lost on would-be hoax distress call makers either is that technology has begun to catch up with the impostors, the Coast Guard says.
In addition to the capability to triangulate the location of most radio calls, the Coast Guard is developing new technology to identify hoaxers. The Coast Guard Research and Development Center’s newest tech can determine the unique vocal identity, like a fingerprint, of hoax callers, includes those wish to remain anonymously by using “silly voices,” the agency says.
“The Coast Guard works closely with the Federal Communications Commission and law enforcement partners to track and pinpoint potential hoax calls,” McCrum said.
If a mariner hears a hoax distress call they are urged to contact the Coast Guard through its mobile app at . Reporting hoax callers helps save time and resources and stop further hoax calls, McCrum says.
“We don’t want people to be afraid of contacting us, and we recognize there is a difference between making a hoax distress call and a false alert, which would be something like a person mistaking a floating log for a body,” McCrum said.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn