Coast Guard Testing Ways to ID Hoax Distress Calls

The Coast Guard received 161 confirmed or suspected hoax calls in fiscal year 2016, a 19 percent jump from 135 in FY2015. Even a routine SAR response typically costs thousands of dollars per hour.

The U.S. Coast Guard has been testing ways to identify hoax calls this year. As the lead agency for maritime search and rescue in U.S. waters, it responds to any notification of distress, and that means its mission is compromised by each hoax distress call received.

"The number of confirmed search and rescue hoax calls each year is dangerous for Coast Guard personnel, costly to taxpayers, and takes resources away from other legitimate Coast Guard operations. Developing a technology to rapidly identify their location would improve the ability of SAR controllers to identify probable hoax calls and make informed launch/no-launch decisions," said Cmdr. Kristi Bernstein, a member of the Enforcement and Policy Standards Division of the Office of Maritime Law Enforcement, in a July 11 article written by Loretta Haring of the Office of Strategic Planning and Communication, Acquisition Directorate.

Haring reported that the Search and Rescue Hoax Location Systems and Methods project was completed this spring by the Coast Guard's Research and Development Center in New London, Conn. It evaluated technologies that would assist the Coast Guard Investigative Service and other partners with locating, identifying, and prosecuting hoax callers.

The Coast Guard received 161 confirmed or suspected hoax calls in fiscal year 2016, a 19 percent jump from 135 in FY2015. "While that may seem like a relatively small number when compared to total search and rescue cases – the service responded to 16,343 SAR cases in fiscal year 2016, saving more than 5,174 lives and protecting more than $63 million in property from loss – hoax calls are a drain on Coast Guard resources and personnel," she wrote.

Her article explains that a routine SAR response typically involves Coast Guard surface and aviation assets, interagency and local partner assets, and Coast Guard Sector Command Center personnel; a search using an HC-130 Super Hercules long-range surveillance aircraft costs nearly $15,000 per hour, while search costs using a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter top $10,000 per hour. Boat rescue costs can exceed $5,000 per hour with the Coast Guard’s 45-foot Response Boat-Medium.

"Additionally, the investigative process often consumes an unreasonable amount of man hours and resources while simultaneously distracting Coast Guard focus away from actual distress situations," Bernstein said.

Making a false distress call is a violation of federal law that can result in a term up to six years in prison, a $250,000 criminal fine, a $5,000 civil fine, and reimbursing the U.S. Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search.

The project combined enhanced direction-finding capabilities and audio forensics/voice analytics with social media exploitation. Haring reported that the Coast Guard partnered with Carnegie Mellon University and its Language Technologies Institute, and the sponsors are currently evaluating the results.

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