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Coast Guard sees big jump in fake distress calls

Coast Guard boat
Elizabeth Miller/ideastream
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Coast Guard boat

"Anyone there? Please, tell us - we're all tired and we're all hungry. Please come back!"

Fake distress calls like this one placed via marine radio can sound identical to real ones. And the U.S. Coast Guard 9th District, which covers the Great Lakes, takes every call seriously.

But the number of fake calls has skyrocketed this year.

A child calls in a false distress call to Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan.

The Coast Guard has fielded more than 160 calls so far this year, compared to just 55 in the comparable period in 2016. 

The 9th District's Christopher Yaw says hoax calls can greatly deplete resources needed for real emergencies.

"If we think someone’s in the water, that can launch a helicopter from one of our air stations," said Yaw.  "If it’s something that’s large enough, we could be launching Coast Guard cutters. Being that we have the shared border, that could even launch getting some Canadian assets involved."

The 9th District reports that some of these calls are made to intentionally deceive the Coast Guard and some are from kids toying with a marine radio.

People can face up to six years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines for knowingly making a false distress call, and Yaw says parents may be held accountable for the actions of their child.

Coast Guard Station St. Joseph in Michigan rehearses search and rescue protocol.
Credit Elizabeth Miller/ideastream
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Coast Guard Station St. Joseph in Michigan rehearses search and rescue protocol.

The cost of search and rescue missions can add up, too.

The Coast Guard says helicopters can cost $16,000 an hour to operate, while boats run about $4,500 an hour.  And the response to a hoax call lasts an average of three hours. 

Yaw says having even one boat out on a fake call can hurt the Coast Guard's opportunity to help someone actually in distress. 

"The time and the assets and the money aside ... the thought of someone losing their life over something people think is a joke … We don’t see the comedy in it."

Copyright 2017 Great Lakes Today

Reporter/producer Elizabeth Miller joined ideastream after a stint at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., where she served as an intern on the National Desk, pitching stories about everything from a gentrified Brooklyn deli to an app for lost dogs. Before that, she covered weekend news at WAKR in Akron and interned at WCBE, a Columbus NPR affiliate. Elizabeth grew up in Columbus before moving north to attend Baldwin Wallace, where she graduated with a degree in broadcasting and mass communications.
Elizabeth Miller
Reporter/producer Elizabeth Miller joined ideastream after a stint at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., where she served as an intern on the National Desk, pitching stories about everything from a gentrified Brooklyn deli to an app for lost dogs. Before that, she covered weekend news at WAKR in Akron and interned at WCBE, a Columbus NPR affiliate. Elizabeth grew up in Columbus before moving north to attend Baldwin Wallace, where she graduated with a degree in broadcasting and mass communications.
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