Coast Guard seeing disturbing spike in number of false distress calls

The Coast Guard says there's been a disturbing spike in the number of false distress calls in the Chicago area.

There’s no easy explanation. It’s not because there are more people on the lake this summer. But whatever the reason, false cries for help are a danger to the boaters who really need help and the rescuers themselves.

Last Saturday, a Coast Guard chopper from Waukegan was dispatched to rescue four people from a boat that had capsized in the Mackinaw boat race. At the same time, the Coast Guard was receiving numerous distress calls from what sounded like a party in Chicago.

“We had a man on land, west of Diversey Harbor, who issued 28 hoax distress calls, while we could hear loud music and people socializing in the background,” said Commander Leanne Lusk of the U.S Coast Guard.

Phony calls like those have nearly tripled this year in the Chicago area, according to the Coast Guard. They say it's an alarming trend which they can't explain.

“Knowingly calling in a false distress call puts responders in danger, potentially distracts us from responding to a real emergency, and costs taxpayers an exorbitant amount of money,” Lusk said.

Some come from adults, who are doing radio checks on channels monitored by the Coast Guard.

Children are making them, too.

On June 3, a distress call from child put a Coast Guard chopper into the air. During takeoff, it suffered bird strikes and had to make an emergency landing, endangering the crew.  Rescuers still treat every call as if it's legitimate, until proven otherwise..

“Anytime we have somebody with a hoax call or false distress, that really puts us in a difficult position because like she said, we treat every call as an actual call,” said Joseph Messina of the U.S Coast Guard.

A typical response can cost about $20k an hour, and callers who are caught will be prosecuted, sometimes facing time behind bars while also paying the bill.

The false alarms this year have cost the Coast Guard an estimated five to ten million dollars.

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