Rescue forces in Miami may be dealing with repeat offender
The voice of the man shouting over the VHF was panicky and convincing. “Mayday! Mayday! We’re drowning!” No location. No boat description. Just a cry for help from someone evidently in distress.
The call turned out to be a hoax, along with at least three other calls picked up by the Miami Coast Guard in March and April. The other transmissions reported a boat on fire, a vessel going down near the 17th Street Bridge in Fort Lauderdale, and a man overboard.
They were all “very, very dramatic,” says Petty Officer Sandra Bartlett. The caller was overwrought, the word patterns in each transmission similar: “Mayday! Mayday!” and “Please! Somebody help!” A muffled laugh in the middle of one of them confirmed suspicions. The calls probably were from the same source.
“We launch on these calls,” Bartlett says. “Every distress call, we launch on it. Not only does [a hoax mayday] put our lives at risk, it also puts the lives of other boaters who are really in distress at risk.”
The Coast Guard counted 105 suspected and confirmed hoax mayday calls last year. These, along with other false alerts — 270 accidental EPIRB activations,
162 false flare sightings, 157 cases of boats reported overdue but found safe, and a whopping 454 erroneous distress reports from a third party — siphoned off precious Coast Guard resources to chase phantom boats in trouble, according to Ensign Eric Leese of the Coast Guard Office of Search and Rescue.
“We’ve got better things to do than chase these hoax calls,” says Leese.
Bartlett says many calls are generated by kids playing with their parents’ VHF on land, others by foolish or poorly educated adults. “Some people do it for the sheer entertainment,” she says. “They like to see the helicopter flying and the boats in action.” Others use the mayday to elicit a Coast Guard response so they can do a radio check.
Sometimes the hoaxes cover nefarious activity. Leese says drug smugglers or others engaged in criminal pursuits used hoax maydays to divert Coast Guard boats or aircraft four times in 2004. In October 2002 an Alabama couple was sentenced to five years probation and restitution of $47,511 in search-and-rescue costs for reporting a bogus man overboard that investigators allege was part of an insurance scam. The woman reported that she, her husband, and 5-year-old child were out boating on a rented 19-foot skiff when she suddenly discovered her husband wasn’t on the boat. She said he evidently had fallen overboard, and she didn’t hear even a splash or a scream. Authorities believed she dropped her husband off on shore before making the distress call. They later learned the couple recently had taken out a $400,000 life insurance policy on the husband.
Calling in a hoax mayday is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a $5,000 civil fine, a $250,000 criminal fine, and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for costs incurred responding to the call. These costs may include $4,244 an hour to operate a C-130 aircraft, $4,400 an hour for a Coast Guard helicopter, $1,550 an hour for a cutter, and $300 to $400 an hour for a Coast Guard small boat.
“Hoax calls cost the American taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars annually,” Bartlett says. Rescue 21, the Coast Guard’s long-anticipated communications and electronics overhaul, will give stations advanced radio direction-finding gear that should help them track hoaxes and weed out land-based false maydays from real emergencies on the water.