During the past year, the US Coast Guard has faced a persistent problem in their rescue work in the Pacific Northwest. Someone keeps making fake distress calls, sending Coast Guard personnel out on expensive, illegal, wild goose chases.
ASTORIA, Ore. - The US Coast Guard is seeking the public's help to find a person who's been calling them to report emergencies that are not happening – hoax calls. Here's Petty Officer Levi Read, public affairs supervisor, based at the Coast Guard station in Warrenton, Oregon.
[Levi Read] “The Coast Guard has received 22 false mayday calls since April of 2016, which puts not only our responders in danger but the general boating public in danger.”
[audio: recording of hoax call] “Mayday, mayday, mayday.”
That's a recording of the fake distress call the Coast Guard has been receiving 22 times since April of this year. Experts say it's the same person calling each time. They also know he's calling from the local area.
[Levi Read] “Every call that we've received so far has been hit off our our [radio] tower on Megler Mountain, at a line of bearing of 183. Which runs right across the river from Washington, through Chinook, Washington, down into Warrenton, and into Seaside. So we know the call is coming from that general area. The problem we've had so far is that we haven't had a second line of bearing from another tower which would be able to give us a cross point and narrow down the area.”
What does the person say when they call?
[Levi Read] “In most of the instances, this person has said just a short burst of. 'mayday, mayday, mayday.' There've only been a couple of instances where he actually had an extended talking. He said, 'I am listing to starboard.'
[audio: recording of hoax call] “Listing hard to starboard and taking on water.”
The Coast Guard is seeking the public's help in finding this hoax caller. They're hoping someone will recognize the voice or have heard something that will help identify this person.
Here's why it's a problem: We live in an area where are already many real distress calls happening, and fake calls distract from the Coast Guard's real job of rescuing people who are genuinely in trouble.
[Levi Read] “We respond upwards of 600 response calls a year. Sometimes even closer to 1,000, where sometimes 300-400 of those are actual emergency situations where we are actually going out and saving a life.”
In their efforts to find our more about the caller, the Coast Guard turned to voice analysis experts at Carnegie Mellon University. They were able to tell a great deal about the person on the radio. The suspect is believed to be a white male, 35-40 years old, with an East Coast to Southeastern Coast accent. The analysis also, amazingly, puts the person at 5 feet, 10 inches tall, and up to six feet tall and 190 pounds.
The penalties for this crime are daunting: punishable by up to six years in prison, a $250,000 fine, a $5,000 civil fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for operating costs incurred, looking for someone who isn't there. The Coast Guard locally has spent close to $200,000 already, responding to these fake calls.
The calls have come in on VHF radio Channel 16. This type of radio is used regularly by mariners and Channel 16 is the channel for distress calls.
While the Coast Guard is aggressively trying to find this suspect, they also want to reassure Good Samaritans out there that their agency relies on the public's help in their work. And that a call in good faith to the Coast Guard that turns out to be what's called a false report, not really an emergency after all, is not what this is about. So people should keep calling if they see someone in danger on the water.
In the meantime, if you know anything about who did these hoax calls, you can call the Coast Guard's Sector Columbia River Command Center at 503-338-9021.
Copyright 2016. Coast Community Radio.