U.S. Coast Guard Office of Search and Rescue
Every day, the U.S. Coast Guard responds to more than 50 vessels in distress, saving an average of 10 lives and assisting another 25 people. Our search-and-rescue capabilities are well known, and we’re proud of our record. When recreational boaters find themselves in serious trouble — a fire aboard, capsized, caught in a storm and taking on water — our rescue teams are quick to provide assistance by launching a rescue crew and/or communicating with other vessels in the area who may be on the scene faster. The U.S. Coast Guard takes every distress call seriously.
Not every mayday or call for help proves to be a genuine distress, however. Non-emergencies, false alarms and deliberate hoaxes waste precious time, cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year, and divert resources and personnel over vast distances to rescue someone in distress who doesn’t exist. In addition, every time a boat leaves the pier or an aircraft flies in response to a distress call, Coast Guard personnel are placed at risk, regardless of the weather.
In some instances, boaters may misinterpret their actual situation and inappropriately call mayday, with the situation later classified as a false alert. Boaters may use false mayday calls as a means of checking their marine VHF-FM radios, knowing that a mayday receives prompt attention and gives them immediate feedback.
On marine radios equipped with digital selective calling (DSC), an emergency distress button triggers a coded SOS signal. If depressed accidentally, the button causes the radio to transmit an emergency alarm received by the Coast Guard and other vessels, which activates the search-and-rescue system.
False activations of Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) continue to be a problem. Used properly, EPIRBs pinpoint boaters in distress and have proven invaluable during search-and-rescue efforts. As boaters sell their boats or buy new EPIRBs, however, registration information may not be updated, and occasionally old, discarded units turn up in landfills, actively transmitting their homing signals and resulting in unnecessary search efforts.
Then there are the deliberate hoaxers or unsupervised children who don’t understand the consequences of making a false report or adult boaters playing practical jokes.
It’s no “joke.” Under federal law, knowingly and willfully making a false distress call is a felony. Even if a child makes the call, parents may be held ultimately responsible. The maximum penalty for making a hoax distress call is up to 10 years in prison, a $5,000 civil penalty and reimbursement to the government for all costs incurred in the search.
Remember: A mayday call should be made over Channel 16 on a marine radio only if there is extreme and imminent danger to life and/or property; for example, your boat is on fire or sinking rapidly or someone has been injured and is in need of immediate assistance. If you are not able to communicate with anyone on VHF-FM Channel 16, activation of other distress notification devices, such as your DSC or EPIRB, is appropriate.
If your problem is serious but not life threatening — for example, your engine won’t start and you need a tow — call the Coast Guard on Channel 16 (not using the word mayday), and ask to be switched to another channel. The Coast Guard can make arrangements with a commercial tow company or can issue a marine assistance broadcast on your behalf.
Limiting false and inadvertent distress calls benefits rescuers and boaters alike. Consider these measures to reduce the possibility of falsely transmitting a distress call:
1. When your boat is not in use, either remove your marine VHF-FM radio or disconnect the power. (Be sure to reconnect prior to going out in your boat; you don’t want to discover you forgot it during an emergency.)
2. Never leave children on a boat unsupervised, and make sure they understand that playing with a marine radio could put other people in danger.
3. Know that boaters making false distress calls could be diverting search-and-rescue crews from life-threatening emergencies happening at the same time — to you, for example. Report suspected hoaxes to the Coast Guard at (800) 264-5980. Calls are confidential, and you can remain anonymous if you choose.
4. For accidental emergency beacon activations, you can contact the Coast Guard via marine radio on VHF-FM Channel 16, or toll free at (855) 406-USCG (8724). If you inadvertently transmit a false radio distress signal, you need to immediately cancel the alert. There is no penalty for making a mistake, only for failing to correct it.