Dangers of accidental distress calls

UPDATE: The graphic representation of Rescue 21 locations at the bottom of this post has been updated.

A Coast Guard 41-foot search and rescue boat crew from Coast Guard Station Grand Isle and MH-65C Dolphin rescue helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans prepare to conduct hoisting operations for a search and rescue demonstration. U.S. Coast Guard photograph/Petty Officer 3rd Tom Atkeson

A Coast Guard 41-foot search and rescue boat crew from Coast Guard Station Grand Isle and MH-65C Dolphin rescue helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans prepare to conduct hoisting operations for a search and rescue demonstration. U.S. Coast Guard photograph/Petty Officer 3rd Class Tom Atkeson.

Written by Charles Rowe, Coast Guard Sector New York

One of the Coast Guard’s oldest and most honored missions is the rescue of those in peril on the sea.  Every rescue is a race against time, a contest not just with the hostile elements but with a clock that counts down tick by potentially deadly tick.

Few events are as frightening and as demanding as an emergency at sea.  One of the most immediate priorities of a vessel operator during an emergency is to broadcast a distress call seeking Coast Guard assistance. Under the stress of the moment, a voice call can be garbled, incomplete or wrong.  When minutes count and lives are in danger, lack of information or poor data can delay the Coast Guard’s ability to reach a mariner in distress.

he Coast Guard responds to a report of a disabled 65-foot sailing vessel with three people aboard, about 30 miles south of Pt. Conception. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles.

The Coast Guard responds to a report of a disabled 65-foot sailing vessel with three people aboard, about 30 miles south of Pt. Conception. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Coast Guard Air Station Los Angeles.

Fortunately, there is a tool that can instantly broadcast the right information to the right people in an emergency. This tool is Digital Selective Calling, similar to an electronic maritime pager, which is triggered by a simple button on marine DSC-equipped radios.  When the button is depressed for three seconds, and if the system has been properly programmed, an alert is automatically broadcasted.  But just like any tool, DSC has to be used and cared for properly to be effective.

A recent incident in New York illustrates what can go wrong:

At 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 4, 2011, the Coast Guard Sector New York command center received a DSC alert. The only information contained in the alert was a Maritime Mobile Service Identity, a nine-digit number sequence that specifically identifies a vessel. If a GPS is hooked into the DSC-equipped radio, precise location data will also be transmitted.

Immediately, the command center developed a search area and search pattern. Simultaneously, the command center researched the MMSI data to identify the registered owner, who was contacted.  A short time later, the search was stood down.

Why? What did the Coast Guard learn that caused it to cease efforts before ever launching a search?

When the registered owner was contacted, he stated that he had sold the boat four years prior.  After further research, the Coast Guard was able to contact the second owner, who had sold the boat a week before.  Finally, the current owner was found.  When questioned, the current owner admitted that in the course of changing the battery, cleaning and checking equipment, he had inadvertently triggered the DSC distress alert. He also admitted that he had little idea of what DSC was or how it worked.

A graphic depicting the operations of Rescue 21

A graphic depicting the operations of Rescue 21

The potential consequence of this incident is fairly obvious.

When search and rescue assets are launched, it costs several thousand dollars per hour to operate these crafts. On a bogus search, that is taxpayer money burned up for no good reason.

When Coast Guard aircrafts and boats are fruitlessly engaged in a search triggered by a false alarm, they are not immediately available for a real emergency. People in imminent danger of death or injury and needing assistance right away may have to wait longer than they would if an unnecessary search was not underway.

An owner or operator who triggers an unnecessary search, even by accident, is liable to civil and criminal penalties that may include jail time, civil and criminal fines that can total thousands of dollars and reimbursement of search costs.

However, the Coast Guard’s preference is not to punish but to educate.  Responsible boat owners need to know what to do and how to do it.

Step one comes when you purchase a boat. Buy a marine radio, equipped with DSC. Then you need to register your MMSI data.  It doesn’t take long and it could be the difference between being found right away and not being found until it is too late. Remember, the last owner’s MMIS data leads to him, not to you, in case of emergency.

To remind yourself, post instructions on how to use, register and test a DSC near your radio or have them readily available.

If you do accidentally trigger a distress alert, make sure to follow the proper steps to cancel the alert.

Don’t make search and rescue tougher than it has to be.  Do your part to save your own life.  Give the Coast Guard the information it needs to find you as quickly as possible.  Learn how to use your equipment.  And, most of all, don’t trigger a false alarm; someone’s life may depend upon it.

A graphic representation of Rescue 21 locations.

A graphic representation of Rescue 21 locations.

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  • Jack Morrison

    Map of Rescue 21 locations is outdated. There is an updated map available on the CG Website, under the Acquistion Directorate.

  • skip

    spent alot of time trying to educate recreational boaters and met with alot of grief and bad attitudes, so i am all for sending them a bill for the resuce cost if there are found to be reckless and/or in violation or just plain stupid while out on the water or ice cuz I am tired of paying for it/them

  • Eric Lawson

    You must remember we all pay for the service through heavy taxation. You will always be paying for the service. I have never been rescued and have still used the service as you do every time you are on the water as just them being there is the service you use. So no need to be so smug ever. Humans will always get into trouble. Thankfully there is the great USCG.

  • Paul Casalese

    Despite our best efforts to educate the public,there will be those who just don’t get it,no matter how many PE courses they attend.Until there is some sort of state licensing requirement,you can expect accidental alarms to continue.