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Coast Guard sees big increase in fake distress calls on Great Lakes

By Jon Mills/WZZM-TV • Jul 12, 2017 at 12:00 PM

MUSKEGON — U.S. Coast Guard stations are responding to an increase in phony mayday calls on the Great Lakes this year.

To date, the Coast Guard says 160 hoax calls have been made. The number is nearly three times the number of prank distress calls made during the same period last year.

It has yet to be an issue in one location on the Lake Michigan shoreline.

"Muskegon area has not had any yet this year," said Stephen Fleming of the Coast Guard Station Muskegon.

Coast Guard units across the Great Lakes request the public's assistance in combating a rise in false distress calls. A false distress or hoax can be made by phone or over a marine radio by a person claiming to be in distress to intentionally deceive others and cause an unnecessary search.

Persons who knowingly make a false distress call can face up to six years in prison, $250,000 fine, $5,000 civil penalty and possible reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search.

The Coast Guard says it works closely with the Federal Communications Commission and law enforcement partners to track and pinpoint potential hoax calls.

The Coast Guard treats all emergency calls as if they are real until they can be proved otherwise. A false distress can put other mariners in real danger at greater risk because of the redirecting of available search-and-rescue responders.

"Responding to false distress calls can redirect personnel and resources from a real emergency and can also put first responders in danger," said Leanne Lusk, Sector Lake Michigan response department chief in Milwaukee.

If someone makes a distress call in error during a radio check or learns that a distress call was made over the radio by accident or a child, they are advised to contact a local Coast Guard unit or the Ninth District Command Center at 216-902-6117.

The average cost of launching a Coast Guard response boat is about $4,500 an hour, while the cost of a Coast Guard helicopter involved in a search could run as high $16,000 an hour. A hoax mayday case can sometimes last an average of three hours before it is called off.

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