An accidental distress call sent out Tuesday from the Northern Mariana Islands unintentionally kicked off a search and rescue operation by U.S. military personnel and local crews, officials confirmed.
When a device used to emit an at-sea emergency signal — known as an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon — was activated on Saipan, a rescue detachment, which included a Guam-based U.S. Navy MH-60S Knighthawk from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 25 and a member of U.S. Coast Guard Forces Micronesia, set out to locate what was anticipated to be a vessel in distress.
“In this case, the activation seems accidental,” Senior Chief Petty Officer Brian Koji, a Coast Guard Joint Rescue supervisor, said in a release.
In addition to U.S. rescue personnel, a local public safety team got involved in the search by conducting vessel checks on the east side of the island. Both groups were unsuccessful in locating the source of the call for help.
The mystery of the distress signal, however, did not end there.
It was soon discovered that the signal was being sent from a device that was registered to the vessel’s previous owner, who relocated after selling the boat in 2016.
The island chain’s motor vehicles department was unable to locate a valid permit for the vessel beyond 2016, meaning the boat’s new owner, and its corresponding distress signal device, were not lawfully registered.
While the whereabouts of the vessel and identity of its owner remain unknown, the incident serves as a reminder of how one should respond if an accidental distress beacon is set off, which, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, makes up the vast majority of distress signal incidents.
“In the case of an accidental EPIRB activation in Guam or Oceania, contact the U.S. Coast Guard Joint Rescue Sub-Center in Guam at 671-355-4800 and provide them with the beacon’s ID to cancel the false alert,” Koji said. “This action prevents unnecessary searches and keeps responders fresh to address emergent cases.”
The EPIRB signal in this case eventually stopped. Whether its battery expired or someone turned it off remains unclear.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media