When an SOS Is Bogus Fake Distress Calls Hurt Coast Guard

Article excerpt

A man is pulled from the choppy waters of the Intracoastal Waterway by a Coast Guard helicopter as nearly two dozen people watched, mesmerized. Moments later he is safely lowered onto the deck of a waiting Coast Guard boat.

The man, a rescue swimmer with the Coast Guard, was never in any real danger during last week's search and rescue demonstration in Mayport meant to showcase the unit's capabilities. Unfortunately, the local Coast Guard unit has recently found itself launching numerous rescues in search of people who call in hoax distress calls.

The Coast Guard Group Mayport, which patrols the waterways from north of Brunswick, Ga., to Cape Canaveral, is fighting back against pranksters using a federal law that makes it illegal to knowingly and willfully make a false distress call when no help is needed.

Since 1997, three Jacksonville residents have been convicted on felony charges of making bogus distress calls, said Lt. j.g. Gary Watson. A case from last year in which three teens stand accused of making a phony call is still pending.

During the 1998 fiscal year, the group received 53 distress calls, Watson said. Of those, three were actual distress calls and the remaining 50 were suspected hoaxes, he said.

Even if a call sounds bogus, the Coast Guard must respond.

"We treat everything as if it's a real emergency," said Officer James Dubberly, who pilots Coast Guard boats.

The average search takes about one and a half to two hours. Approximately 20 people from the personnel who try to pinpoint the location of the call to those who staff the air and water units are typically involved.

Responding to the false distress calls is more than just time-consuming. It's also costly -- anywhere from $323 to $4,400 an hour to operate the boats, helicopters and boats commonly used in searches.

It costs about "$11,000 for one quick `help, help,' " Watson said.

During the last fiscal year, the Coast Guard spent $511,855 responding to the 53 distress calls. That figure includes the cost of having Coast Guard units from other bases help with the searches. The Mayport Group's budget for the year was about $1.25 million, Watson said.

Cost isn't the only factor to consider. Fake distress calls can prevent the Coast Guard from assisting boaters who sincerely need help.

In 1990, two New England fisherman died when a prank caller interfered with their legitimate distress call, Watson said. …