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Baltimore Coast Guard Probes Phony Distress Calls

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Alex DeMetrick has been a general assignment reporter with WJZ...
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BALTIMORE (WJZ)– If it’s a joke, it’s a potentially dangerous one. The Coast Guard station in Baltimore has received six phony distress calls for a boat in trouble.

Alex DeMetrick reports, that kind of hoax could put a real call for help in jeopardy.

Boats out of the Coast Guard station in Baltimore answer radio distress calls all the time. But earlier this summer, six of those calls were phony.

“It comes over VHF Channel 16 and the caller says, ‘Mayday, mayday!’ And all six calls have been determined to be the same male voice. And all of these calls have been determined to come from the Middle River area of Baltimore,” Lt. Rick Armstrong of the United States Coast Guard said.

And the Coast Guard responded dispatching boats and helicopters on wild goose chases that have cost $70,000. Because second guessing there isn’t an emergency, isn’t an option.

“The one time we don’t take it seriously, that will be the one time it’s an actual true distress call,” Lt. Armstrong said.

Two years ago, the Coast Guard unveiled it’s new communication center. This technology is why they know the hoax calls are coming from Middle River. Here’s how:

“It registers in our computers a line of bearing, and it tells us that boat is somewhere along that line of bearing,” Capt. Mark O’Malley of the United States Coast Guard said.

But to find the exact spot, the radio call needs to be picked up by a second receiving tower.

“So we can go from many square miles to almost a pinpoint, if we have multiple lines of bearing,” Capt. O’Malley said.

But those multiple lines have not appeared with the hoax calls, possibly because the maydays are so quick.

“That’s all we get and silence on the line after that,” Lt. Armstrong said.

If the person making the hoax calls thinks it’s funny, no one else is laughing.

“When crews are out there searching for this, we can’t actively respond to other legitimate cases that may be out there. And the crews that are actually searching, they could be in danger as well,” Lt. Armstrong said.

It’s crime to launch a phony search, punishable with up to six years in prison.

The Coast Guard has a tip line and is asking the public for help. Anyone with information about the hoaxes is being urged to call 410-576-2515.

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