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.
Under federal law, knowingly and willfully making a distress call is a felony. 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 every call received by the Coast Guard is treated as if it is a real distress case, said Lt. Stacie Fain, a Search and Rescue Controller at Coast Guard Rescue and Coordination Center in Juneau, Alaska. Hoax calls can divert limited resources over vast distances to respond to someone in distress who does not exist.
In 1990 a father and son died after their fishing vessel Sol E Mar sank off Woods Hole, Mass. The two fishermen placed a legitimate distress call at the same time the Coast Guard received a hoax call.
The Coast Guard responds because there is a possibility of distress. While our cutters or aircraft are out searching for nothing, another boater in actual distress may not get timely assistance. Lives could be lost.
If a hoax caller is not caught the taxpayers pay the cost of the search. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft cost about $4,244 an hour to operate, Coast Guard helicopters cost about $4,400 an hour, Coast Guard cutters cost about $1,550 an hour to operate and Coast Guard small boats also cost between $300 to $400 an hour to run.
New Years 2002 was witness to one of the most expensive hoax calls in Alaska. Several Coast Guard aircraft, a Coast Guard cutter, and more than 40 personnel teamed with Alaska State Troopers and two police agencies spent over 13 hours searching for the source of a hoax call in the Kachemak Bay area of the Kenai Peninsula. No one was ever located and the source of the call was never determined.
In just one week (in May 2003) a single Coast Guard Station had to respond to five separate hoax disress calls.