JUNEAU, Alaska — The U.S. Coast Guard received multiple reports of false distress communications in various parts of Southeast Alaska recently, putting mariner's lives at risk.
Coast Guard Investigative Service is working with the Juneau Police Department to investigate these calls, and urges the public to be aware that knowingly and willfully communicating a false distress message such as a flare or a radio communication to the Coast Guard or causing the Coast Guard to attempt to save lives and property when no help is needed is considered a felony under federal law.
The felony offense is punishable by up to ten years in prison, up to a $250,000 criminal fine, a $10,000 civil fine, and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search. To determine the fine(s), cost estimates are based on hours of asset operations and personnel hours worked.
Flares are considered a sign of distress and they are distinctive from fireworks. Flares are red or orange in color, and come in three common types. Meteor flares rise rapidly to over 250 feet and descend rapidly, burning for more than five seconds. Parachute flares rise rapidly to over 1,000 feet and descend slowly, burning for more than 30 seconds. Hand-held flares burn for one to two minutes.
Crews aboard Coast Guard Air Station Sitka's MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters, Coast Guard Station Juneau's 45-foot Response Boat Mediums and 17th District-based Coast Guard Cutters have been launched on multiple unresolved distress calls in the last several weeks, costing more than $1.4 million of taxpayer money to conduct unresolved searches that degrade crew readiness, impact their ability to train and respond to other missions, and endure unnecessary risk operating in the challenging and harsh climate and geographic environment in Alaska.
So far in fiscal year 2020, the Coast Guard launched on 102 cases that could not be resolved, including 64 unintentional/accidental electronic alerts, 15 abandoned/derelict vessels, seven uncorrelated maydays, two people in the water, eight flare sightings and three capsized boats.
“When we launch our small boats and crews, we anticipate that we are answering the call of someone in distress, and it puts us at a serious disadvantage to help those who are truly in distress if we are launching on a false distress call,” said Chief Petty Officer Mahire A'Giza, officer-in-charge of Coast Guard Station Juneau. “We have launched our small boats to search with Coast Guard helicopters for at least two hours on three separate, unresolved flare cases in the Gastineau channel alone over the last two weeks.”
CGIS is offering a $1,000 reward for any credible information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person making a false distress call. The public is urged to report any information regarding false distress calls via the CGIS TIPS mobile app, available on smart devices. You may also contact your local CGIS office by visiting: https://www.uscg.mil/CGIS or through the 17th District command center at 907-463-2000.