A high-powered laser pointer is pointed skyward in a residential Houston neighborhood. Laser strikes on pilots have jumped drastically in recent years. (PO2 Stephen Lehmann / COAST GUARD)
Every year the Coast Guard spends untold amounts of money and countless hours responding to incidents that are 100 percentpreventable.
Between false distress calls, lasers pointed at crews and drunken boating incidents, civilian shenanigans regularly cut into resources normally reserved for dealing with security operations and honest accidents.
And under today’s budget constraints, these incidents are compounding the problem for the service.
District 8 spokesman Ed Huntsman stressed that rescue crews will respond no matter the cost, “but in an an era of sequestration and diminished resources, these events sometimes lead us to challenges that just aren’t needed.”
That challenge is chiefly an unnecessary strain on manpower, said District 7 spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma said.
“You can’t go out and train if you have to go out and search for a flare,” he said.
False distress calls
In a particularly bad five days in August, Somma said, his district responded to five false calls. Just one search — using a HC-130 Hercules aircraft at a price of $17,866 per hour — cost the service $43,000.
Here’s are the per-hour costs of using some other aircraft, which are often first responders:
■H-65 Dolphin helicopter: $11,061
■H-60 Jayhawk helicopter: $14,318
■HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft: $15,354
Somma added that many searches also involve a boat crew and can last for several hours. If a call comes in at night and the crews can’t find anyone, he said, they will head back out first thing in the morning.
“There’s so many false alarms that it becomes more surprising to actually find someone,” he said.
In cases where the culprit is apprehended, the service can try to recoup some of the costs.
For example, on Aug. 19, a federal judge ordered an Ohio man to pay $489,007 in restitution, in addition to three months in federal custody, for a false distress call he made last year.
Danik Shiv Kumar, 21, reported seeing flares go up over Lake Erie as he flew in a Cessna single-engine plane. His call launched a Coast Guard boat search totaling 37 hours, not counting the rescue helicopter and plane crews who wasted their time responding to the phony call.
On Aug. 10, a Coast Guard patrol off the Gulf Coast of Florida had to return to harbor after someone shined a laser pointer at the ship, forcing the crew to get immediate eye exams.
According to Somma, the Coast Guard has reported 46 cases of laser pointers directed at aircraft or ships this year, and the problem is getting worse. There were 39 incidents total last year.
Each time, crews had to return to port for comprehensive eye exams. It’s a danger for boaters in distress as well.
“Because the aircrew was lased and they have flash blindness or temporary loss of vision – or worse, permanent loss of vision – that person may not receive the help that they needed because the aircrew has to divert back,” Somma said.
Boating under the influence
There have been 400 boating deaths this year, according to the Coast Guard. Last year’s total was 651.
“If we could get people in life jackets, we’d be saving a tremendous number of lives,” Hunstman said.
But the other challenge, experts said, is getting people to rein in their alcohol consumption.
Coast Guard statistics show that alcohol was the main contributing factor in 17 percent of boating deaths last year.
“It’s difficult to change that behavior, because boaters think of boating as the last bastion of American freedom, if you will, and they really don’t want to be told how to recreate,” said spokesman Michael Baron, whose District 9 had issued 89 drunken boating citations as of Aug. 13.
Huntsman echoed that sentiment.
“Certainly we don’t want to diminish anyone’s experience of drinking a cold beer on a summer afternoon with a fishing line in the water,” he said.
But both stressed that driving a boat under the influence can be even more dangerous than driving a car. Weather conditions, currents, vibrations and movements are all more difficult to deal with while impaired, they said.
To reduce safety incidents, the Coast Guard encourages boaters to take a class on how to operate their vessels, and to wear life jackets. But for more egregious offenses, such as false distress calls and laser pointers, the service sends out regular warnings that offenders will be prosecuted.
Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is a federal crime, carrying up to a five-year jail sentence and $250,000 fine.
“Anyone who intentionally causes a false distress call, interferes with our operations to save a life when no help is need, that’s a Class D felony,” Somma said.
Fines for those convicted, however, don’t offset the cost of responding to preventable incidents.
“It’s an important thing that we’re always tracking, financially trying to be as efficient as we can,” Somma said. “But at the same time, our commitment to the American public is, if you need us, we’re going to be there. It’s just unfortunate that this seems to happen so often.”