Coast Guard emphasizes education on the impact false distress calls have on operations

Northeast Atlantic Coast Guard NewsBOSTON — The Coast Guard is calling attention to the dangers and risks of hoax distress calls after launching air and boat crews to respond to a radio transition of a child’s voice making a mayday call Saturday at approximately 6:46 p.m.

Watchstanders at Coast Guard Sector Southeastern New England’s command center received the call. The call was made with no position or nature of distress and was received off a Rescue-21 communication tower. The R-21 is a system of radio towers and computer software along the coastline of the United States and helps determine the location of vessels by radio transmission. The location was narrowed down to potential areas in the vicinity of Narragansett Bay, Portsmouth, R.I.

An Air Station Cape Cod, Mass., MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and a Station Castle Hill 45-foot Response Boat-Medium were launched to search for source of the call. Additionally, the Narragansett Bay strike force, a first of its kind mutual aid program between all the fire departments on Narragansett Bay, were notified and launched boats from Warwick, Portsmouth and Providence fire departments. Each asset searched for more than one hour, investing a total of more than five hours of response time and found no vessels or people in distress.

The Coast Guard believes this call was a false distress caused by a child playing on the radio. This case is the fourth false distress call in the southeastern New England area in the last month.

False alerts and hoax calls are particularly frustrating cases for both the maritime emergency responders and taxpayers. These cases unnecessarily put first responders in danger and waste valuable operational hours and cost. The total search efforts associated with this call will be well over $20,000, $10,000 for one hour of helicopter search time and $3,000 each hour per small boat.

“The Coast Guard is required to search for every distress call regardless of the assumed source,” said Commander Jeannot Smith, Sector Southeastern New England chief of response operations. “Calls like this one can needlessly burnout our crews and divert our attention from mariners who are actually in distress.”

The Coast Guard urges mariners to educate their children on proper radio protocol and alert the Coast Guard if a false distress call is made or if they know identity of a suspected hoax caller.

Below are some past hoax and false distress cases.

United States v. Flores, No. 09-00161 (N.D. Ohio Nov. 23, 2009) (defendant pled guilty, sentenced to thirty-six (36) months supervised release, and ordered to pay $112,735.70 in restitution.

United States v. Johnson, No. 04-00117 (W.D. Mich. Jan. 27, 2005) (defendant pled guilty, sentenced to twenty-four (24) months imprisonment, and ordered to pay $56,958.30 in restitution.

United States v. Baldwin, No. 03-05356 (W.D. Wash. Mar. 5, 2004) (defendant pled guilty, sentenced to twelve (12) months and one (1) day imprisonment followed by thirty-six (36) months of supervised release, and ordered to pay $194,587.70 in restitution)

In United States v. Feener, No. 05-10287 (D. Mass. July 26, 2005), the defendant was charged under 14 U.S.C. § 88 (c) for having radioed the Coast Guard from his home on two separate occasions, both times claiming to be the captain of a fishing vessel taking on water. Both of the defendant’s calls resulted in futile, hours-long searches and the deployment of Coast Guard air and marine assets. The defendant ultimately pled guilty to sending a false distress message in violation of 14 U.S.C. § 88(c); he was sentenced to eighteen (18) months imprisonment, to be followed by thirty-six (36) months supervised release, and was ordered to pay $82,004.00 in restitution to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The defendant in United States. v. D’Addieco, No. 09-10087 (D. Mass. Jan. 21, 2010), was charged under 14 U.S.C. § 88(c) for having called 911 to falsely report, under a pseudonym, that he was onboard a non-existent vessel that was sinking in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, with four passengers onboard. The defendant pled guilty to making a false distress call in violation of 14 U.S.C. § 88(c); he was sentenced to three (3) months imprisonment, to be followed by twenty-four (24) months supervised release, and was ordered to pay $56,459.70 in restitution to the U.S. Coast Guard.

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