Hoax distress calls cost lives, resources

BALTIMORE – Each day, the Coast Guard responds to nearly 109 boaters in distress, saving 10 lives and assisting 192 people, but not every distress call is real.

Out of the 114 rescue cases handled by Coast Guard Sector Baltimore throughout the northern Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries since October 1, 2008, 15 percent of the cases were probable hoaxes.

Under federal law, knowingly and willfully making a false distress call is a felony. Even if a child makes the distress call, the parents are ultimately responsible. The maximum penalty for making hoax distress calls is five to 10 years in prison, a $5,000 civil fine, a $250,000 criminal fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the costs incurred responding to the false call.

“The harsh reality of hoax distress calls is that the Coast Guard treats every call we receive as a real distress case,” said Capt. Brian Kelley, Sector Baltimore Commander. “While our boats or aircraft are out searching in response to a hoax call, another boater in actual distress may not get timely assistance. Lives could be lost.”

Maritime hoax distress calls could place unnecessary risk on the rescuers responding to the calls and interfere with legitimate search and rescue cases, which cost the American taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. If a hoax caller is not caught, the taxpayers shoulder the burden of the search. Coast Guard and federal, state, and local search and rescue partners’ aircraft and vessels are costly to operate. For example, Coast Guard aircraft cost over $4,000 an hour to fly, Coast Guard cutters cost about $1,550 an hour to operate, and Coast Guard small boats cost between $300 and $400 an hour to run.

Common hoax call sources:

Boaters trying to obtain a radio check are a common source of false distress calls. Mayday calls receive instant feedback from the Coast Guard, a concerned boater or both responding under the impression the boater is in distress.

Some VHF marine band radios have a distress button feature that when activated emits a digital Morse code SOS signal. Improper operations of an automatic SOS feature either by accident or on purpose are a violation of law and endanger boater’s lives.

Unsupervised children are also a source of false distress calls.

Adults intentionally transmitting false information for the purpose of entertainment or to launch a search. “I encourage adults to take personal responsibility to teach their children about the importance of proper radio use and the severity and danger of hoax calls,” said Kelley.

The Coast Guard has been taking steps to improve its capabilities to track radio distress signals with the Rescue 21 program. This program will allow the Coast Guard to pinpoint the origin of all distress calls to within plus or minus two degrees. With this technology, the Coast Guard will be able to track down both legitimate and hoax distress callers quickly, which will minimize the use of Coast Guard assets for unnecessary search and rescue efforts. This will allow the Coast Guard to focus on legitimate distress calls and continue to save lives.

The Coast Guard needs the assistance of the public to reduce hoax calls. This can be done by:

  • Removing radios or locking them up when not in use.
  • Teach children that unauthorized use puts people in danger.
  • Report suspect hoaxes to the U.S. Coast Guard Tip line:1-800-2NO-HOAX

All calls are confidential. Tipsters can remain anonymous if they choose.

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