Broadcasting False Distress Signals Results in Operational Burden

SAN FRANCISCO – After several unresolved flare sightings were reported over the holiday weekend, the Coast Guard reminds the public that flares are visual distress signaling devices, and should only be used for their intended purpose. Additionally, making false calls for help over VHF-FM channel 16 is illegal, and punishable under federal and state law.

At 10:30 p.m., on Saturday, August 29th, the Coast Guard received a report from a vessel near South Hampton Shoal stating that it had seen a white flare rise and fall, and conducted a search of the immediate area. During the analysis of the information, the Coast Guard also received a single “Mayday” transmission on VHF radio channel 16. However, no position was reported in conjunction with the call for help.

The Coast Guard launched an HH-65 “Dolphin” Helicopter from Air Station San Francisco, as well as a Response boat from Station San Francisco. The search turned up no results that evening. A planned search at sunrise the following morning was delayed until approximately 2 p.m. due to heavy fog. No signs of distress were observed upon completion of that search, and search efforts were suspended.

Though anyone who is in legitimate distress should immediately alert the Coast Guard through radio communications and signaling, and report their situation to the Coast Guard, distress signaling equipment should only be used for its intended purpose. Red and orange flares are internationally accepted as a sign of distress, and should not be used except in the event of an emergency. All other color flare sightings will be investigated by the Coast Guard, and should only be used for their intended purpose. Expired flares should be disposed of properly by taking them to a local fire department.

Additionally, the boating public is reminded that channel 16 is reserved for distress communication, equivalent to 911 for phone lines. Boaters who need to hail the Coast Guard for non-emergencies can contact the local station on Channel 16 and request to use another channel to communicate.

Under federal law, an individual who knowingly and willfully communicates a false distress message to the Coast Guard, or causes the Coast Guard to attempt to save lives and property when no help is needed is:

* Guilty of a class D felony
* Subject to up to 6 years in prison
* Subject to a civil penalty of not more than $5,000
* Liable for all costs the Coast Guard incurs as a result of the individual’s action.

Under California state law, it is unlawful for any person to use or discharge any registered emergency signaling device in any manner other than that permitted by the instructions for use.

Should an individual ignite a test flare, or accidentally ignite a flare when not in a situation of distress, the individual should make every effort to contact the Coast Guard as soon as possible, and provide their location and report the ignited distress signal. The same advice applies to “mayday” calls over the radio. Should boaters believe themselves to be in distress and the situation resolves itself, the boater should report their updated condition to the Coast Guard immediately. By correcting the initial report as soon as possible, the Coast Guard can avoid sending crews on an unnecessary and potentially dangerous search.

“Searches for unnecessary flares or false distress calls are costly for taxpayers, as well as exhausting to Coast Guard search and rescue crews,” said Commander Russ Davidson, Chief of Coast Guard Sector San Francisco Response Department. “Additionally, while our assets are tied up investigating a situation that doesn’t exist, our response to an actual case could be jeopardized.”

To learn more about safe boating practices, and to see all required and recommended safety equipment, visit: .

If you have any problems viewing this article, please report it here.