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Coast Guard combatting hoax callers

New London — The Coast Guard responded to about 160 hoax distress calls across the country last year, diverting valuable resources and wasting taxpayer money. In New London, a team of researchers has worked since 2014 to develop ways to better detect these calls.

While fake calls represent a very small percentage of total search and rescue cases — the Coast Guard responded to more than 16,000 such cases last year — it's a drain on resources and personnel, who can be put at risk, said Al Arsenault with the Coast Guard Research & Development Center.

A typical search and rescue response involves both surface and aviation assets and can be costly. For example, rescues involving the Coast Guard's 45-foot response boats, which are used to patrol the Thames River, cost as much as $5,000 per hour, according to the Coast Guard.

Arsenault and his team focused on serial hoax callers. In some cases, he said, the same person is making more than 20 fake distress calls over several months or even several years. A spike in fake distress calls on the Great Lakes this July reportedly cost the Coast Guard thousands of dollars.

Voice forensic technology can help identify whether the same person is making these calls, and various attributes about the caller such as height, weight, country of origin, or if he or she seems intoxicated. The technology, developed by Carnegie Mellon University, also can give information on a person's surroundings, such as if they are calling from inside a concrete room, Arsenault said.

In addition to voice forensics, other techniques being employed include mobile direction-finding capability, which can better pinpoint which direction calls are coming from, and social media analytics.

"We have found out that some of these people like to brag on social media or post images of the Coast Guard responding to a hoax call," Arsenault said.

These tools would help Coast Guard units like Station New London maintain readiness, said Lt. Nina McDonald, commanding officer of the station. While the station hasn't received a lot of hoax calls, search and rescue crews have responded to calls in which people did not require assistance in remote areas where it took hours to respond.

"When the Coast Guard responds to calls that are not urgent search and rescue (cases), it greatly reduces personnel readiness at the unit, which limits our capabilities of responding to actual distress calls," McDonald said, adding that it also takes the focus off other missions, such as law enforcement and port security.

Making a fake distress call is a violation of federal law. Perpetrators face a maximum punishment of up to six years in prison, a $250,000 criminal fine, a $5,000 civil fine and reimbursing the U.S. Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search.

j.bergman@theday.com



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