Authorities are seeing a big jump in distress calls from boaters and others on Lake Michigan this year -- with a fair number of them turning out to be false alarms or the work of pranksters, according to year-over-year statistics kept by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard received 55 total distress calls, real and fake, through the end of June last year along the lakeshore that includes Chicago and nearby suburbs. But this year, the agency has responded to about 400 rescue calls so far on the lake and, in roughly half of those cases, Coast Guard officials determined the calls were from boaters inadvertently performing radio checks on emergency channels, others who incorrectly thought they spotted a boat that was capsizing or otherwise in peril or still others playing a joke.
While they know the nature of the calls, the Coast Guard couldn't pinpoint the reason for the uptick. There certainly aren't more boaters, officials said.
"Many of the calls have been made by children playing on marine band radio, either on a boat or on land," Coast Guard Cmdr. Leanne Lusk, the chief of response for Lake Michigan, told reporters Tuesday alongside fellow guardsmen in front of a rescue helicopter at the Chicago Fire Department Air/Sea Rescue Heliport on the city's East Side.
Coast Guard rescue crews typically get "mayday," or emergency help, calls from boaters via marine radio, though some are received by phone. Those calls can include reports of sinking boats.
But authorities warned that even a vague radio distress call can be enough to launch an expensive search by boat or helicopter requiring emergency crews to scan hundreds of miles of blue waters for a threat that doesn't exist. Those responses can pull personnel and resources away from actual boating emergencies, or needlessly put first responders in danger, officials said.
Lusk cited a false June 3 distress call made by a child in Chicago that launched a boat and helicopter crew from a Coast Guard station in Waukegan. While taking off, the helicopter -- which can cost as much as $16,000 an hour -- hit one or more birds and had to make an emergency landing. Another helicopter was launched before authorities determined the call was a "false mayday."
Sending out a Coast Guard boat costs about $4,500 per hour.
"Besides the waste of taxpayer money, imagine if something worse had happened to the crew that experienced the bird strike," Lusk said.
A false call means launching a rescue boat and helicopter for three hours, which can cost taxpayers at least $60,000 per call, authorities calculate. So far this year, fake reports and false alarms have cost taxpayers $5 million to $10 million, according to the Coast Guard.
Lusk also mentioned last weekend's annual Chicago Yacht Club race to Mackinac Island, Mich., in which the Coast Guard responded to two separate race boat emergencies during the evening.
Five people were rescued in the race, but around the same time a man standing "west of Diversey Harbor ... issued 28 hoax distress calls while we could hear loud music and people socializing in the background," Lusk said.
"The people in legitimate danger could have lost their lives because someone decided to make a hoax call," she added.
Coast Guard officials warned parents to secure boat marine radios from children, adding that parents could be liable for prank calls made by their children. Officials said that emergency calls made in error won't be held against boaters if they contact the local Coast Guard unit by phone or by marine radio.
Making a false distress call is a felony punishable by up to six years in prison, a $250,000 fine and rescue reimbursement costs to the Coast Guard, officials said.
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