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What constitutes a false distress call and what are the consequences and penalties?

Posted by on January 3, 2013

Under USC Title 14, section 88, the Coast Guard is directed to render aid to “distressed persons, vessels, and aircraft on and under the high seas and on and under the waters over which the United States has jurisdiction…”.  

Subsection (c) of section 88 provides that, “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—

(1) guilty of a class D felony;
(2) subject to a civil penalty of not more than $5,000; and
(3) liable for all costs the Coast Guard incurs as a result of the individual’s action.”  

Persons may also be charged under state and local laws for crimes such as disorderly conduct.

The Coast Guard is making efforts to prevent false distress calls and signals by publicizing the costs and impacts of hoaxes and by seeking to recover response costs.  Hoaxes are increasingly being prosecuted under federal law.  Recent cases include arrests in Oregon for falsely reporting a surfing accident and for setting off two emergency flares in a parking lot.

The Coast Guard estimates that there are 600-700 hoaxes each year.  Some false calls are unintended and may result from children playing with radios, accidentally pressing the red distress button on a DSC equipped VHF radio, improperly using VHF channel 16 to make “radio check” calls, and even shooting off flares for entertainment.  Since the Coast Guard responds immediately and aggressively to all distress signals and calls such incidents can result in misallocation of resources (personnel and equipment) and large costs for responding and searching.  In some situations, rescuers’ lives are put in jeopardy.

The Coast Guard estimates that it costs about $4,200 an hour to operate a C-130 aircraft, about $4,400 and hour for helicopters, about $1,500 an hours for a C.G. Cutter, and about $300 – $400 an hour for a small boat.  In addition, there are costs for local and state responders.

New technology (called Rescue 21) allows the Coast Guard to pinpoint and track the source of all radio calls.  In many cases this can cut hours off the time required to find a vessel in distress.  It will also allow accurate determinations when some calls are false.  However, even with advanced technology there will be instances when response must be made even though a call for help may not be real.

The penalties for false calls and hoaxes can include time in prison (5 – 10 years), a civil fine up to $5,000, a criminal fine up to $250,000, and reimbursement of costs incurred in response.  Although the Coast Guard does not pursue recovery of costs for legitimate assistance and rescue, false calls and hoaxes will be prosecuted. 

Intentional hoaxes are criminal offenses.  If you have knowledge of a hoax it can be anonymously reported by calling the Coast Guard at 1-800-2NO-HOAX.  Unintentional false calls can be prevented by making sure everyone knows how to properly operate the VHF radio and keeping radios secured from children.

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