The Wrong Message

False alarms cost the Coast Guard valuable resources and taxpayer dollars

The broken, distraught voice screams through the radio: "Mayday, Mayday -- I need help! -- Mayday!"

The Coast Guard watchstander scrambles for a pen. Reaching for a checklist, he develops a lump in his throat. A cold patch of sweat forms on his forehead as the rumblings of adrenaline surge through his body. With nervous excitement he picks up the receiver and calls out, "Vessel in distress, what is your position? Over!" Hearing nothing in return the watchstander repeats: "Vessel in distress, what is your position? Over!"

No response is heard. No position is received. There is no reply at all.

The service is trying to educate the public that these hoax calls are crimes, which can lead to hefty fines and imprisonment.

Coast Guard units receive thousands of distress broadcasts on VHF-FM channel 16 each year. Mariners may only be able to transmit a brief description of their situation before tending to the needs of a deteriorating vessel. It’s often difficult to determine if a call is a false alarm, hoax or actual distress due to the vague information received.

Sometimes, what is thought to be a genuine distress call is actually a hoax; an intentional deception that often leads the Coast Guard on a wild-goose chase.
The conclusion that a particular mayday is a probable hoax is based on several articulable factors, with which a reasonable person would agree, that lead to the conclusion that the broadcast is false and there is no distress, according to the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual (IAMSAR). Therefore, it is essential that SAR personnel treat every distress alert as genuine until they know differently.

Decisions have to be made quickly, though; lives are at stake. Coast Guard units need to ready their rescue resources, and that could mean a boat crew getting underway or a flight crew getting airborne.

If the call is a hoax, resources are taken away from other missions, such as homeland security, marine safety, or assisting someone who is indeed in distress. The hoaxer places other lives in jeopardy and charges the tax-paying public for the assets used.

Three examples of the cost for Coast Guard services are:
A Coast Guard HH-65 helicopter costs $6,528 per hour.
A Coast Guard 41-foot utility boat costs $2,162 per hour.
A 110-foot patrol boat costs $1,751 per hour.

"It’s demoralizing," said Capt. Doug Connor, commanding officer of Group Corpus Christi, Texas, and former chief of search and rescue for the eighth district, referring to the unnecessary use of Coast Guard resources.

Connor said searching for someone who reports no useable position or identification, referred to as an uncorrelated mayday, risks Coast Guard crewmembers’ lives.

Connor knows first-hand about the hazards associated with hoax calls -- he’s a Coast Guard pilot. It’s Coast Guardsmen such as Connor that spend the long, tiresome hours searching in vain for hoaxers. He said the Coast Guard needs more advanced technology to detect hoaxes and cited the National Distress and Response System Modernization Project as a start.

The goal of the project is to modernize and upgrade the National Distress and Response System; the ways and means by which the Coast Guard communicates with recreational and commercial boaters, other local, state and federal agencies, as well its own components: groups, marine safety offices, stations, cutters, etc.

The NDRSM project saw first light in the mid-90s when the Coast Guard observed its communications systems as lacking behind in technology; much of the existing equipment was installed in the 1970s. Although the project isn’t scheduled to achieve full operational capability until 2006, enhancements such as multi-channel recorders, instant playback recorders, and localized direction finding equipment have been installed in some locations throughout the Coast Guard.

Lt. Cmdr. Mark Kasper, the former assistant chief of search and rescue for the Eighth District, said the project would improve coastal antennae sites, allowing the Coast Guard to pinpoint a mariner’s position with greater accuracy.

Kasper said multiple antennas could receive radio signals and relay that information to direction-finding equipment used by the Coast Guard. The data received could then tell watchstanders whether or not a distress call came from land or water, thus aiding the decision-making process for launching a search.

The Eighth District currently uses a Digital Voice Logger (DVL) and computer software called Goldwave, a comprehensive digital audio editor, to manipulate and remove background noises, said Chief Petty Officer Michael Mullen, the district senior assistant controller.

Mullen, who uses computers to locate distressed boaters, said the Coast Guard is upgrading its computer software to be able to "read" the new technology available.
He said the technology on the market cannot only read a voice, it can create a signal print of the voice -- a kind of DNA of the human voice.

Adm. James Loy, former commandant of the Coast Guard, stressed the importance of modernizing the service’s technology to the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation and Infrastructure in 1999 saying, " A significant challenge for us, and an urgent priority, is to upgrade our aging distress communications system."

The number of mayday calls increased in the Eighth District since Loy’s plea to the subcommittee.

In 1999, the district suspended (exhausted all means utilizing either communications or Coast Guard assets) 131 calls where the word "mayday" was heard. In 2000, the number jumped to 227, according to district statistics. In these cases, no one was found. As of Nov. 2001, 192 cases were suspended. Only 23 were confirmed as a false alarm, non-distress or actual distress. With new equipment and technology, the Coast Guard may be able to discern between what is a real distress call or a hoax.

Lt. Stacey Mersel, a former district command duty officer who managed search and rescue cases, said the increase could be attributed to hand-held radios like the new Hummingbird, which many boaters use. The radio is equipped with an automated SOS button that could be accidentally pressed, alerting the Coast Guard of a possible distress.

The false calls made by both adults and children, tie-up Coast Guard resources and adversely affect rescue personnel, said Mersel. Crews who are sent on bogus calls become mentally and physically tired, which can put those in true need of Coast Guard assistance in danger. The boating public is urged to report any distress calls heard on their VHF-FM radio to the Coast Guard, said Mersel.

Mullen said it’s important to educate the public about the consequences hoaxes have on the Coast Guard, the taxpayers, and the boating public.

In August 2001, a federal judge in Mobile, Ala., sentenced a Florida man to seven months in prison for causing the Coast Guard to respond to a false distress call during Hurricane Georges in September 1998. The judge also ordered him to reimburse the Coast Guard $49,208 for the cost of the search efforts.

More recently, in June, a Kemah, Texas, man was sentenced to ten years for causing the Coast Guard to respond to a hoax mayday call he made Feb. 25, 2001, in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mark David Warren was also ordered to reimburse the Coast Guard $229, 229 for the cost of the 30-hour search. Warren will serve three years supervised release after his release from a federal prison.

In this case, Warren, using the alias William Donald Strauss, claimed that Warren fell off his sailboat, the Zephyr. For this deception, the judge imposed the maximum penalty permitted under law.

Under federal law, knowingly and willfully transmitting a hoax distress call is a felony. It is punishable by up to six years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and restitution to the Coast Guard for all costs incurred responding to the distress.

The Eighth District saves more than 700 lives annually and assists more than 8,000 mariners. Hoax calls waste valuable time, resources and money. Most importantly, hoaxes risk lives.

The Coast Guard hotline to report false distress calls is (800) 264-5980.
For more information about boating safety, you can go to www.uscgboating.org/.