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False Alarms – Are No Joke

by Wayne Spivak, National Press Corps United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

False Alarm Results in a Year and 1-day and $194,587
U. S. Coast Guard
March 8, 2004

SEATTLE — Western Washington District of Washington sentenced JAMES GARRETT BALDWIN, age 31, of Aberdeen, Wash., in Federal District Court to twelve months and one day’s imprisonment, to be followed by three years of supervised release for one count of communicating a False Distress Message to the United States Coast Guard. The court also ordered Baldwin to pay $194,587 in restitution to the U.S. Coast Guard.”,13319,uscg3_030804.00.html

Each year the Coast Guard and their Auxiliary spend countless hours and dollars chasing ghosts. No, we’re not competing with the “Ghost Busters”, we’re risking your life and ours chasing false distress messages.

Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco estimates that 36% of all responses were attributable to false alarms. False alarms aren’t limited to San Francisco. In June of 2001, Coast Guard Station Juneau (Alaska) was unable to immediately respond to legitimate calls for assistance due to a series of false distress messages received in a twenty-four hour period. In January of 2000, a HH-60 helicopter was diverted from its normal patrol for three hours – chasing phantoms.

According to the Ninth Coast Guard District, “In 1998 there were 81 hoax calls in the Great Lakes region which cost the American taxpayer $1,275,500. Millions of dollars are spent, not only by the Coast Guard but also by local harbor and marine patrols. It costs approximately $400 per hour to operate a standard rescue boat, while a helicopter or cutter may cost from $1,500 to $3,000 per hour.”

The Coast Guard reported that in New Years 2002 several Coast Guard aircraft, a Coast Guard cutter, and more than 40 personnel teamed with Alaska State Troopers and two police agencies spending over 13 hours searching for the source of a hoax call in the Kachemak Bay area of the Kenai Peninsula. No one was ever located and the source of the call was never determined

Engaging in the transmittal of a false distress message is not a game. In fact, the Coast Guard is deadly serious about finding those individuals, whether adult or child, who seems to think that calling a “mayday” into a VHF microphone, is fun! As Mr. Baldwin found out, there can be dire legal consequences to these actions.

And just because you’re a minor (under the age of 18 years) doesn’t get you or your parents off the hook! False distress calls are felonies, punishable by a maximum penalty of six years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and restitution to the Coast Guard. This means that you, the parent can be brought into the criminal and civil aspects of your children’s escapades. In November 2002, two Holland, MI youths were convicted of making false distress calls. These “pranks” cost the US Government (that’s you and me) an estimated $20,000. For their prank, the youths were sentenced to 20 hours of community service.

Not all false distress messages are intentional. In January 2003, a rash of false maydays was heard around the Alameda area. “We’ve recently received several separate mayday calls that were transmitted in a methodical manner and without a sense of urgency, which indicated that some mariners are assuming this is an acceptable way to test radio signals. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Cmdr. David Swatland, the Eleventh Coast Guard District’s chief of search and rescue. “Not only is it against the law to transmit a false mayday, but these false distress calls can place the lives of other mariners in peril because they detract from our ability to respond to actual emergencies.”

For whatever reason, false distress calls cost time, money and put many lives in peril. To learn more about how to use your radio, and how to mitigate potential problems while boating, why not take a boating course? Contact your local Coast Guard Unit ( or Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla