Coast Guard Pursues Flare Sighting, False Distress Signals

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — False distress calls and flare sightings continue to keep Coast Guard crews active. Coast Guard units in Southcentral Alaska handled two cases over the weekend. Over $100,000 was spent looking for individuals who it was later found were not in distress. The Coast Guard responds because there is the possibility someone is in real trouble.

“These non-distress cases are becoming a serious drain on limited Coast Guard resources that would otherwise be available for real distress calls,” said Capt. Mark Hamilton, commander Sector Anchorage and Captain of the Port Western Alaska. “Luckily, no one has been impacted in this manner yet. However, the threat is real.”

In 1990 a father and son died after their fishing vessel, Sol E Mar, sank off Woods Hole, Mass. The two fishermen placed a legitimate distress call at the same time the Coast Guard received a hoax call.

RECENT ACTIVITY IN ALASKA

Coast Guard watchstanders in Anchorage received a flare sighting report at about 9:25 p.m. Friday from the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Homer. The sighting was thought to be in Tutka or Jakolof Bay. Several individuals in the area reported seeing flares in the vicinity of Hesketh Island in Kachemak Bay.

The motor vessel Larus was in the area and agreed to do a shoreline search. An Urgent Marine Information Broadcast (UMIB) was issued to alert other mariners to be vigilant and report any further sightings of distress. An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and crew from Air Station Kodiak was launched to conduct an aerial search.

Poor weather conditions prevented the aircraft crew from searching through the night. The Coast Guard Cutter Mustang, homeported in Seward, was diverted to continue the effort. At first light another Coast Guard helicopter and the Coast Guard Auxiliary were on scene conducting additional searches and interviewing people on the shore in the area. Good Samaritans in the area also assisted by responding with boats and information regarding the flare sighting. One man, Roy Wilson, stated he saw the flares between 9 and 9:30 p.m. He took his own skiff out and searched for anyone in trouble but found nothing.

At 8:26 a.m. Saturday the Auxiliary crew made contact with campers at a cabin on the southeast end of Yukon Island. One of the campers, Jeremy Greensville, admitted to shooting off one flare. After more discussion he admitted shooting off two or three flares. The campers were in no distress.

$90,000 dollars is a lot of money to spend looking for someone who is not in distress. That was the cost of running this case. Four Coast Guard assets and the time and effort of several watchstanders were used. That’s four assets and the attention of several watchstanders that was not available had there been a true distress call at the same time.

At 7 p.m. Sunday the Coast Guard received notification of another flare sighting. This one was sighted northwest of Kodiak City on a river over land. An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter and crew was launched to respond. Local police also conducted a ground search. No signs of distress were found and the case was suspended after a couple of hours.

The cost of this case was just over $11,000 and that figure does not include the police department’s effort.

For more than 200 years the U.S. Coast Guard has responded to distress calls at sea. Some of those calls are found to be false alarms, or hoax calls, sent by people who willingly mislead the Coast Guard and other search and rescue assets for various reasons. What they don’t realize though is that a hoax call could potentially divert valuable search assets from an actual distress case, and put rescuers unnecessarily in harms way while responding to the false call.

FEDERAL LAW CONCERNING HOAX DISTRESS CALLS

14 U.S.C. 88(c) makes it a federal felony for anyone to knowingly and willfully communicate a false distress message to the Coast Guard or cause the Coast Guard to attempt to save lives and property when no help is needed. Penalties include up to 6 years in prison, $250,000 fine, $5,000 civil penalty, and the possible reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search.

Parents are considered responsible for their children’s actions. Many hoax calls are determined to be children playing with radios. This can be prevented by educating your children and locking up radios/boats when not in use.

Hoax calls affect everyone, including people who are not boat owners or part of the maritime community. Hoax calls affect:

-The U.S. Coast Guard by placing our men and women in danger by operating ships, boats and aircraft, responding to these false distress calls.

-The American taxpayers by wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. This is money that can be allotted homeland security and/or additional training. It costs approximately $400 per hour to operate a standard rescue boat, while a helicopter or cutter may cost from $1,500 to $3,000 per hour.

-Those really in distress at sea by interfering with legitimate search-and-rescue cases.

The Coast Guard is working with the Federal Communications Commission, Department of Justice and other federal, state and local agencies to aggressively prosecute hoax callers and recover costs for the federal government on behalf of all taxpayers.

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