Coast Guard Researchers Combat Hoax Distress Calls

A successful Coast Guard SAR operation off the coast of Florida, June 2017 (USCG)

By U.S. Coast Guard News 07-14-2017 09:29:27

[By Loretta Haring, USCG Office of Strategic Planning and Communication]

The U.S. Coast Guard is the lead agency for maritime search and rescue in U.S. waters. But that mission is compromised every time the service receives a hoax distress call.

“The number of confirmed search and rescue hoax calls each year is dangerous for Coast Guard personnel, costly to taxpayers, and takes resources away from other legitimate Coast Guard operations,” said Cmdr. Kristi Bernstein, a member of the Enforcement and Policy Standards Division of the Office of Maritime Law Enforcement. “Developing a technology to rapidly identify their location would improve the ability of SAR controllers to identify probable hoax calls and make informed launch/no-launch decisions.”

The Search and Rescue Hoax Location Systems and Methods project, completed this spring by the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut, sought to “evaluate and demonstrate different technologies that would assist the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) and other partners with locating, identifying and prosecuting hoax callers within the Coast Guard domain,” said Holly Wendelin, C4ISR acquisition program lead for the Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Program.

The Coast Guard received 161 confirmed or suspected hoax calls in fiscal year 2016, up from 135 in 2015. While that may seem like a relatively small number when compared to total search and rescue cases – the service responded to 16,343 SAR cases in fiscal year 2016, saving more than 5,174 lives and protecting more than $63 million in property from loss – hoax calls are a drain on Coast Guard resources and personnel.

Until a call is determined to be a hoax, Coast Guard units respond without delay to any notification of distress. As a result, hoax calls pull critical equipment and operators away from legitimate marine emergency situations, putting the public in increased danger, said Special Agent-in-Charge Marty J. Martinez, with CGIS Chesapeake Region. Since many SAR cases are conducted in adverse weather conditions, the safety of Coast Guard personnel and assets are also put at risk.

Hoax distress calls also “waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars annually in search and investigative response,” Martinez added.

A routine SAR response typically involves Coast Guard surface and aviation assets, interagency and local partner first responder assets, and Coast Guard Sector Command Center personnel, Bernstein said. The specialized equipment needed to perform search and rescue is costly to operate. A search utilizing an HC-130 Super Hercules long-range surveillance aircraft costs nearly $15,000 per hour; SAR costs using the MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter are over $10,000 per hour. Boat rescue costs top out at more than $5,000 per hour with the Coast Guard’s 45-foot Response Boat-Medium.

“Additionally, the investigative process often consumes an unreasonable amount of man hours and resources while simultaneously distracting Coast Guard focus away from actual distress situations,” Bernstein said.

Making a false distress call is a violation of federal law and may result in 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.

“But the Coast Guard continues to receive and respond to false distress calls,” said Martinez. “In addition to educating the public of the consequences of making a false distress call, identifying and prosecuting those that do serves a crucial role as a deterrent.”

The original focus of the RDC project was to assess technology that could help better determine the likelihood of a distress call being false and aid in possible prosecution of hoax call cases. Early in the project planning phase, however, the RDC project manager, Lt. j.g. Gianfranco Palomba, and associated subject matter experts realized that one technology solution would not be enough to catch these elusive callers. So the team developed a “three-prong” technology solution as a more effective weapon, combining enhanced direction-finding capabilities and audio forensics/voice analytics with social media exploitation.

The RDC project team performed extensive market research to evaluate specific capability options for each prong of the project. Bailment agreements, technology demonstrations/webinars, limited user evaluations, actual operational deployments, and a request for information were strategies used to cast a wide net of available solutions, said Al Arsenault, the RDC’s C4ISR branch chief and a project subject matter expert.

The Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 system already offers direction-finding capability. When the system receives a distress call, it generates a line of bearing from the tower to the source of the call. Integrating multiple lines of bearing can provide more precise location information for vessels in distress – or provide assurance that a call is a hoax, according to Jay Spalding, a project SME with the RDC’s C4ISR Branch.

To evaluate commercially available technologies that might be used to supplement Rescue 21’s direction-finding capabilities, the RDC partnered with the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division and its Stiletto Maritime Capabilities Demonstration Program. Stiletto is a specialized maritime test platform that was used as the base for evaluating direction-finding platforms used to geo-locate emitters on Very High Frequency and High Frequency channels, including marine radio distress channels and emergency locator beacon frequencies, said Don Decker, a project SME with the RDC’s C4ISR Branch.

The second tool, social media exploitation, involves social media monitoring to capture and geo-reference nefarious social network posts for situational awareness, resource planning and law enforcement evidence collection. Arsenault said this tool would also be used to create awareness within the public by communicating the SAR hoax problem, as well as broadcasting potential fines and punishments that could be levied against serial offenders.

Coast Guard Research and Development Center and Carnegie Mellon University cooperate on voice and audio forensics to create an audio “fingerprint” of callers on suspicious maritime search and rescue emergency calls, as shown in this undated graphic. The Coast Guard combined the audio forensics with improved inland direction finding to detect, identify, and deter hoax SAR callers.

The audio forensics capabilities – the third tool in the three-prong approach – are crucial in the prosecutorial component. For this, the Coast Guard partnered with Carnegie Mellon University and its Language Technologies Institute. The CMU team is part of the Command, Control, and Interoperability Center for Advanced Data analysis – CCICADA – a Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Office of University Programs-funded research consortium. The CMU team can provide voice forensics analysis of hoax calls, which can reveal key biometric and environmental cues for further research and pursuit by the Coast Guard Investigative Service, Arsenault said; a voice “print” that can identify much like a fingerprint.

From this project, CGIS hopes to gain “increased integration of technology and the science of voice analytics to investigate crime, and new and innovative tactics, techniques and procedures specifically related to identifying and prosecuting those responsible for transmitting a false distress,” Martinez said. The sponsors are currently evaluating the results to determine the best use of the technology in Coast Guard operations.

`This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and has been edited for length. It may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.