'Coast Guard is investigating a hoax distress call that led to a two-hour search in Flagler Beach.'... 'Coast Guard asks help to find a hoax caller after 11 false calls from Oct. 19 to Dec. 16.'...' 70 Coast Guard personnel, a 140ft cutter, 3 boats, a rescue helicopter and a C130 Hercules conducted a 21hr search on Lake Erie false distress call for a boat by a pilot in a plane overhead.'
It goes on and on and costs not only the US Coast Guard, but all other rescue authorities around the world, millions in wasted resources.
In the Lake Eyrie incident, the man later told investigators he originally thought he saw one flare go up but never saw a boat or the reported four people aboard, according to the Associated Press.
He continued reporting a boat in distress 'for fear of sounding stupid', a mistake that cost him $489,000 and three months in jail, a ruling the sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has just recently upheld.
The Coast Guard has received about a dozen suspected hoax calls just on the Great Lakes so far this boating season, said Lt. Davey Connor, public affairs officer for the Cleveland-based Ninth District. The culprits are often repeat offenders or unattended children playing on their parents' marine radio, Connor said.
It goes without saying that phony distress calls can prompt extensive searches that tie up resources, put rescuers at risk and as exemplified by the Lake Erie case, carry a hefty price tag, not to mention the jail term.
Weeding out the fake calls from the real calls becomes easier for the Coast Guard once radio antennas are installed that help pinpoint where a call comes from. In the USA the nationwide communications system project, called Rescue 21, is fast nearing completion.
Locating a distress caller previously required more manual labor and eyes on the scene because a radio transmission network would map a broad area where the call originated. This still hampers many jurisdictions around the world.
Once antennae are installed, radio tower receivers pick up VHF radio transmissions and generate lines of bearing to the source of the call. Each tower triangulates the direction from which the call came, mapping lines that form a point.
'If those lines cross and it’s over land or it’s in somebody driveway we say, 'OK this person says they’re drowning but it’s hard to drown on somebody’s front lawn,'' Connor said.
When in doubt, all rescue authorities will respond and investigate. Connor said rescuers only refrain from responding when it's clear through the location of the call, or the location and the history of the caller, that no one is in distress.
'If there have been multiple calls coming from a specific area, we can record them or listen to the voice. That will influence our decision whether to send out a Coast Guard asset to investigate,' he said.
There's a difference between hoax calls and distress calls that turn out to be wrong. Take, for example, a recent report of a body in the water that the Coast Guard determined to be a log. There's no malice in that.
The message is clear from the US Coast Guard, and applies to any jurisdiction in the world: Do not tolerate anyone sending hoax calls.
Many calls originate at marinas, so they might be happening around you. If you know of or overhear someone sending a hoax call, report it to your local rescue authority or the police. Rescue authorities maintain command centers, staffed around-the-clock to respond to distress calls. Anyone can report suspected hoax calls. Do not let children play near radio equipment.
Rescuers takes every distress call seriously. A child’s voice calling for help may elicit an emergency response. Inform children how serious a call for help can be. If you overhear a child calling for help over a marine radio, stop them and use the same radio to let the relevant authority know it was a false alarm.
Hoax calls diminish the rescuers' ability to keep boaters safe on the water. All rescue authorities need your help in eliminating this threat to all sailors and boaters.
Finally there's that three months jail to think about - and the almost $500,000 in fines. That should be enough to deter even the most careless.