Hoax maydays cost Coast Guard, endanger lives

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff file photo/Chief Warrant Officer John Roberts, of Coast Guard Station Gloucester, talks with a reporter at the station in Harbor Loop.

The U.S. Coast Guard on Wednesday said it was investigating whether a distress call last Saturday about four missing boaters off the coast of Maine could be a hoax — a possibility that sets Chief Warrant Officer John Roberts' teeth on edge.

Roberts, commanding officer at the Coast Guard's Station Gloucester on Harbor Loop, said fabricated distress calls waste valuable search-and-rescue resources and unnecessarily put the lives of Coast Guard responders at risk.

"It's not a game," Roberts said Wednesday morning, as escalating winds foreshadowed the incoming storm that is expected batter the Massachusetts coast for the next several days. "If you get caught and convicted, it's up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, up to $10,000 in civil penalties and you're also responsible for fully reimbursing the Coast Guard for the costs of the search."

Those costs, he pointed out, are significant when the Coast Guard brings the full range of its search-and-rescue resources to bear, including fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and life-saving vessels.

The Coast Guard's C-130 fixed-wing aircraft cost about $15,000 an hour to operate, while the MH-60 rescue helicopters go for about $10,000 an hour and life-saving vessels cost about $5,000 an hour to operate.

But the financial aspect of hoax distress calls are nothing compared to the potential costs in human lives.

"Most importantly of all, these types of hoax distress calls can unnecessarily put the men and women who work for me at risk," Roberts said. "They sign up to protect the public, but we don't want to have them going out and searching in 20-foot seas for no reason. If any of them were hurt or killed, it would be reprehensible. And if I had to deliver the news to the family that it was for nothing, it would be even more reprehensible."

Last Saturday, the Coast Guard launched a 22-hour search after receiving a distress call from a mariner who said his boat had capsized, sending him and his three children into the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere off Kennebunkport, Maine.

The operation involved hundreds of searchers and covered 1,500 nautical miles, according to the Coast Guard. No trace was found of a capsized boat or individuals in the water and there were no other related reports of missing persons. The Coast Guard suspended the search Sunday morning. 

It is asking that anyone with information about the distress call to please contact Sector Northern New England at 207-741-5478.

Roberts, who has served in the Coast Guard for 28 years, has some personal experience with hoax calls. When he was stationed near Palm Beach, Florida, from 1997 to 2001, he was part of a team sent out to locate and identify a hoax distress caller.

"We had what sounded like a teenage boy calling in distress calls constantly on the emergency Channel 16," Roberts said. "This was before we had the current technology that can give us the exact latitudinal and longitudinal positions of a call, as well as record the voice of the caller."

Roberts and other Coast Guard personnel boarded a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter and, using a radio direction finder, began the search for the caller. The key, he said, was keeping the caller talking on Channel 16 so he could be located.

After locating the house from which they believed the hoax calls were emanating, they hovered and called in the Palm Beach Sheriff, who informed the caller's family of their child's curious sense of fun.

"We left him to be dealt with by his rather upset family," Roberts said.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

By the numbers

How much it approximately costs the Coast Guard to use a piece of equipment in a search and rescue operation for an hour: 

C-130 fixed-wing aircraft: $15,000 

MH-60 rescue helicopter: $10,000

Life-saving vessels: $5,000.

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