Hoax: a $400,000 joke

Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City helicopter comes in for a landing

Coast Guard aircrews from Traverse City and Detroit provide search-and-rescue coverage across all five Great Lakes. Hoax calls divert these life-saving assets, waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and are illegal. U.S. Coast Guard Photo

Say the word hoax out loud. It sounds similar to the noise you might make if something was stuck in your throat.

Just like something stuck in your throat, hoaxes are obstructions to the life-saving work that we do. They waste vital search and rescue resources and unnecessarily put the men and women who selflessly serve as first responders at risk.

As the Great Lakes thaw and water temperatures rise, we are recognizing National Safe Boating Week. Hoax calls diminish our ability to keep boaters safe on the water. Recent upgrades to our communication equipment make it easier for us to identify, apprehend and prosecute hoax callers, but we still need your help in eliminating this threat to all on the lakes.

In 2012, a single hoax caller prompted a 21-hour search when he reported a distress flare coming up from a boat as he flew over Lake Erie near Cleveland. His lie drew a 140-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter, three smaller rescue boats, a rescue helicopter and a Canadian C130 Hercules airplane

The caller later admitted his lie and pleaded guilty to making a false distress call. A federal judge sentenced him to serve three months in prison and pay restitution of $277,000 to the U.S. Coast Guard and $212,000 to the Canadian Armed Forces. Those staggering numbers reflect how expensive search-and-rescue operations can be.

In 2013, Coast Guard men and women responded to 16 calls on the Great Lakes that were likely hoaxes.  This year, we’ve already received several calls suspected of being hoaxes and the boating season has hardly begun.

Coast Guard crews search for missing boaters on assets like this 25-foot response boat. Hoaxes are no joke: lives are on the line. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer First Class Phillip Null

Coast Guard crews search for missing boaters on assets like this 25-foot response boat. Hoaxes are no joke: lives are on the line. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer First Class Phillip Null

We seek out, apprehend, and prosecute the hoax callers that threaten our ability to save lives, but we rely on members of the boating public, too.Want to save lives? Here are two things you can do that will make a big difference:

Do not tolerate anyone sending hoax calls. Many calls originate at marinas, so they might be happening around you. If you know of or overhear someone sending a hoax call, confront them. If you are not comfortable confronting them, report it to your local Coast Guard (see below) or civilian law enforcement agency.

Do not let children play near radio equipment. We take every distress call seriously. A child’s voice calling for help may elicit an emergency response. Inform them how serious a call for help can be. If you overhear a child calling for help over a marine radio, stop them and use the same radio to let us know it was a false alarm.

The Coast Guard 9th District maintains four regional command centers across the Great Lakes, staffed around-the-clock to respond to distress calls. Anyone can report suspected hoax calls to the below numbers:

For Lake Superior, the Straits of Mackinac, and northern Lakes Huron and Michigan, contact Sector Sault Ste. Marie: 906-635-3236

For Lake Michigan, contact Sector Lake Michigan: 414-747-7190

For Lake Huron and western Lake Erie, contact Sector Detroit: 313-568-9559

For eastern Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, contact Sector Buffalo: 716-843-9527

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One Response

  1. Phil Blank says:

    There are stations on Lake Erie between Huron and Buffalo.