Released: February 25, 2000
The United States Coast Guard (Coast Guard) has informed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that Coast Guard communications stations have recently received a number of false Morse code SOS distress calls on marine VHF channel 16 (156.8 MHz). Marine channel 16 is the international voice, distress, safety and calling channel and is monitored by the Coast Guard, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Coast Guard personnel treat any distress call received on channel 16 as an emergency and immediately investigate it. The FCC and the Coast Guard believe that most of the false Morse code SOS distress calls the Coast Guard has been receiving may be the result of mariners incorrectly using a feature available on certain marine radios that allows the operator to transmit an SOS call automatically. Apparently, these radios have a button that, when pressed, automatically switches the radio to channel 16 and, if held down for a few seconds, automatically transmits an SOS on channel 16. False distress calls have the potential to mask genuine distress calls and overwhelm the ability of the Coast Guard to respond to emergencies.
Individuals using marine radios with the capability to automatically transmit a Morse code SOS are advised not to use this feature unless there is an actual emergency. Operators who transmit a false SOS distress call are in violation of Section 325 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended (Communications Act), 47 U.S.C. § 325. Additionally, Section 333 of the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. § 333, prohibits any person from willfully or maliciously interfering with the radio communications of any station licensed or authorized under the Communications Act or operated by the U.S. Government. The Coast Guard and the FCC emphasize that these prohibitions apply to the operation of all marine VHF transmitters, including those capable of automatically transmitting Morse code SOS distress calls on channel 16. [Note: In cases where the distress call is inadvertent, operators should immediately make a call to ``all stations'' on channel 16 canceling the SOS distress alert.]
Parties in violation of these provisions may be subject to the penalties contained within Sections 501-510 of the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. §§ 501- 510. Fines for a first offense can range as high as $11,000 for each violation or imprisonment for up to one year. The radio equipment can also be seized and forfeited to the U.S. Government. Further, the Coast Guard can recover the costs of its rescue efforts when the initiating distress call is determined to be false. These costs can be as much as $5,000 an hour.
Questions regarding this Public Notice may either be sent to the FCC's Enforcement Bureau by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling George Dillon at (202) 418-1215, or by sending an e-mail to the United States Coast Guard at email@example.com, or by calling (202)-267-1943.