Fake distress call costs responders resources, money

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ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – A hoax mayday call made Wednesday caused a New Smyrna Beach, Florida–based Coast Guard boatcrew, Coast Guard command center staff in Atlantic Beach and a Flagler County Fire Flight helicopter crew to be placed in unnecessary danger and cost time and money as rescuers responded to false distress call.

Watchstanders in the Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville command center received a distress call on VHF-FM marine radio channel 16 at 12:12 p.m., during which the man on the radio said “Mayday, mayday, mayday” and passed no other information.

The Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 system, a direction-finding communications system designed to better locate mariners in distress, provided the watchstanders with two intersecting lines of bearing in Flagler Beach, Florida, indicating the call may have originated in the Intracoastal Waterway there.

The watchstanders immediately responded, directing the launch of a boatcrew from Coast Guard Station Ponce De Leon Inlet in New Smyrna Beach and requesting assistance from Flagler County’s Fire Flight helicopter. They also began broadcasting a request for any boaters in the area to head toward the location to assist.

Two hours later, after the boat and helicopter crews saturated the small search area and found no signs of distress, an employee at a local business in Flagler Beach called the command center to report someone witnessed a worker there, who had been hired through a temporary agency, make the distress call from a vessel in the boat yard there on shore. The caller confirmed no one was actually in distress.

“Making false distress calls limits the Coast Guard and our rescue partners’ capabilities to assist boaters who are in actual emergency situations,” said Capt. Tom Allan, commander of Sector Jacksonville. “They are a waste of time and resources and place first responders in unnecessary danger as they work to assist people who don’t really need our help.”

Coast Guard Special Agent Randal Thompson of the Coast Guard Investigative Service in Jacksonville went to the business to interview everyone involved.

“This incident was a teachable moment for all involved and should serve as a reminder to the public of how quickly a three-second hoax call may escalate into a full-blown emergency and law enforcement response,” said Thompson. “The man who made the call told me he was embarrassed by the whole situation and didn’t realize the severity of his actions until it was too late.”

“We’re thankful the management contacted us when they realized what was happening so we didn’t waste any more time and resources,” said Tony Wells, command duty officer at Sector Jacksonville.

It is a 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 may include up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, a $5,000 civil penalty and the possible reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search.

No charges have been filed at this time.

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