It's No Joke

False Distress Calls Cost All of Us

Published online: Jun 19, 2008 News
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For more than 200 years the U.S. Coast Guard has responded to distress calls at sea as quickly as possible as if it were an actual call for help. But every once in a while, 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.

The federal law concerning false 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.

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;

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

Anyone who knowingly and willfully commits a hoax or false distress call is fleecing America. 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.

 

Coast Guard Assets and Average Hourly Costs

The U.S. Coast Guard, as a matter of both law and policy, does not seek to recover the costs associated with search-and-rescue from the recipients of those services. While we must be mindful to employ a cost-effective response to an incident, response or distress itself must not be delayed or limited by the misplaced concern of "who is to pay the bill."

One of the exceptions to this rule is the perpetrators of false distress calls. One penalty levied on hoax callers is reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the costs of performing the search. This is determined by hourly standard rates for cutters, boats, aircraft and crew.

 

HOAX CASES THROUGHOUT THE UNITED STATES:

JANUARY, 1999:  A male voice, claiming to be the operator of a motor yacht alerted the Coast Guard in San Diego that his vessel was sinking southwest of Point Loma, Calif., and there were 11 people, nine of them children, on board. Coast Guard assets searched the area with vessels from the San Diego Harbor Patrol and four good Samaritan vessels. While the male continued to report the distress, Coast Guard Station San Diego and San Diego Harbor Patrol boats boarded a vessel at anchorage in San Diego Harbor. The distress transmission abruptly concluded when the units approached the Dessert Diver. It is strongly believed this distress call was a hoax originated from the vessel.

 

FEBRUARY 2005: Patricia Johnson, 49, of Selmer, Tenn., pleaded guilty October 27, 2004 in U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, Mich., to charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and making a false distress call to the Coast Guard. She was sentenced to two years in a federal prison and was ordered to pay $56,958.30 in restitution to the Coast Guard.

 

JUNE 2004: U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Apprentice Robert T. Tolson, assigned to the San Diego-based Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton, pled guilty to three charges and specifications related to making a false distress calls at a court-martial proceeding. Tolson was sentenced to r

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