Two Rhode Island Men Face Fine for Using Distress Flares at a Wedding

distress flare
Distress flare exercise (USMC file image)

Published Oct 6, 2021 10:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

Two Rhode Island men have reached a civil settlement with federal prosecutors over charges that they knowingly discharged a flare gun at a wedding celebration, sparking a "needless and expensive maritime search and rescue operation off the coast of Block Island."

On the evening of June 6, 2020, Perry C. Phillips and Benjamin C. Foster set off in a skiff towards the Breezy Point area of Block Island, where a friend was holding a wedding reception. They had borrowed a flare gun in advance of the trip. When they reached the scene, they set off three flares. "At least one of the two knew at the time that the flares were a maritime distress signal, and both understood that it was improper to use them as they did," prosecutors said. 

Phillips and Foster returned safely to shore, but bystanders spotted the flares and reported the distress signal to the local harbormaster, who alerted the Coast Guard. Following protocol, the USCG launched an hours-long search operation with two helicopters and one patrol boat. 

As there was no legitimate distress, the search found no victims. However, the cost was quite real: The Coast Guard's direct operating cost for helicopters runs in the range of $5,500-7,000 per hour, not including support costs. 

Sending a false distress signal and causing the Coast Guard to make a needless search is illegal, and it carries the potential for civil or criminal penalties. Under the agreement, Phillips and Foster admitted to wrongdoing and agreed to pay a civil penalty of $10,000 to resolve the case.