DETROIT – When someone has an emergency on the water, they should call out "Mayday" on his or her maritime radio. Mayday is the international hailing in distress signal and should only be used in dire emergencies, but the U.S. Coast Guard says others are using it for all the wrong reasons.
Unfortunately, when a false distress call comes in, the U.S. Coast Guard has no idea that it is just a hoax and must respond.
"These calls are what we call uncorrelated maydays where we can hear someone say 'help' or 'mayday' and then very little else. We have to treat these cases very seriously because that could be the last transmission that someone in danger was able to make," said Ben Chamberlain, the chief public affairs officer for the USCG Detroit Command Center.
Local 4 has learned the U.S. Coast Guard for the Great Lakes region received 40 fake distress calls in 2015. The cost to respond to those calls was $711,024.20. So far for 2016, the same region has had 26 hoax calls with the cost to respond to those totaling $683,426.48.
However, the financial toll of the false distress calls is just one of the problems caused by the hoax calls.
"They're a bigger problem than you might think," Lt. Rachel Rychtanek, a pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard. "You're taking a Coast Guard helicopter away from what could be an actual case."
Rychtanek worked a recent shift when three false distress calls came in.
"The end result was the actual duty crew ended up flying for too long, so they couldn't fly anymore, so we had to call the back up crew in," Rychtanek said. "We had to have replacement pilots come in so that they could keep flying for the rest of the night."
It takes a toll on the crews who need to be fresh and ready to respond to a real emergency. And if the Coast Guard is responding to a false distress call they cannot pull off it to take another call.
"That's the part that gets you, like you said, God forbid that there is a real call going on and unfortunately we are investing our time with someone that thought it would be fun just to get a fly over from the Coast Guard and is just making a false call just for fun and if there is somebody trapped on a boat that actually is sinking or there is somebody in the water and we can't divert to that one because we are on this case. it gets a little bit frustrating from time to time," Rychtanek said.
Penalties for making a false distress call include:
- 6 years in prison
- $250,000 criminal fine
- $5,000 civil fine
- Reimbursing the coast guard for the costs of the search and rescue operation.
"Hoax calls are no joke," Chamberlain said. "If you get caught and we can prove you made these distress call you can be billed for the entire operation, again helicopter fuel is not cheap, boat fuel is not cheap and again you're looking upwards of eight to 10 personnel man hours."
The Coast Guard has investigators whose job is to try to track down those responsible for false distress calls.
Craig Reed, a petty officer, 1st class has more than 17 years with the U.S. Coast Guard and stresses people should only use mayday in dire emergencies such as boats taking on water, a fire, or a personal injury on board a vessel.
A false distress call Reed responded to in May 2015 was recently prosecuted in Macomb County. Deanna Rowe pleaded guilty to making a false report and was sentenced to pay the Coast Guard $2,000 in restitution, a $550 fine and 8 months probation.
Reed agrees these calls are frustrating.
"To get out there and to know that they are not in distress and they are out having fun or just being in error of judgment, it takes it toll because we go out and if we have to constantly search for them it could be hours," Reed said.
"To find that people are doing this just because they think it's fun or funny, it's pretty frustrating," Chamberlain said.
I would want people to know that they're endangering other people's lives when they do this."
Chamberlain said if someone experiences an emergency on the water, they should put their safety gear on right away including life jackets. When you call for help make sure to give the location, nature of the emergency, number of people on board and if there is another way to contact you like a cell phone or alternate radio.
The U.S. Coast Guard also wants everyone to remember to wear their life jackets on the water whether its on a boat, kayak or paddle board.
They say there are more drownings this summer and they want everyone to stay safe on the water.
For more information on false distress calls and the costs U.S. Coast Guard can incur, click here.