SOS without any cause

A long drawn out signal sounded suddenly in the Merchant Marine Ministry’s Search and Rescue Operations Room, making everyone spring to attention. «Confirm your position,» the duty officer said, giving orders to mobilize the search and rescue team. «Southeast of the island of Skyros, a ship is listing and the crew has abandoned ship.» A few minutes later, a Super Puma helicopter was on its way, along with a C-130 air force plane, coast guard vessels from Evia and Skyros and ships in the area that had received orders to assist. After a tense three hours, applause suddenly broke out. The rescue operation had successfully been completed and the 17 crew members of the ship were being brought ashore. Events like these are almost a daily occurrence and the State does not count costs when human lives are at risk on the high seas. Yet often emergency signals that lead to the mobilization of men and ships are made by mistake, or even worse, as a joke. The cost of a rescue operation, depending on the gravity and the means that are used, ranges from 3,000 euros per hour to tens of thousands of euros if an extended air and sea search is required, especially if at night. According to ministry data, between May and August 18 of this year, search and rescue teams swung into action 409 times, of which 218 were actual distress calls. Of the others, 191 were «mistakes.» Of the real cases, 53 were vessels adrift, 29 were swimmers or fishermen who were missing, 25 involved engine breakdowns, 28 were vessels run aground and the remaining 84 ranged from vessels lost or taking on water, capsizing, or collisions, to name a few. As for the mistakes, 79 were flares fired, 64 EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) that is, a signal activated by contact with water, and the other 58 were due to other causes. Coast guard officials report that the total cost of mobilizing the system in the event of a mistake amounts to hundreds of thousands of euros every year, considering that a C-130 flight costs 2,700 euros per hour, a Dornier aircraft 2,500 euros, a Huey helicopter 1,900 euros and a Super Puma 2,200 euros. The cost of a single flare is 2,500 euros. Fuel for coast guard vessels is also very expensive. Search and rescue operations headquarters often receives a distress signal that later proves to have been a mistake, for which there are three different reasons. – Activation of EPIRB through carelessness. – People sending a genuine distress call due to engine trouble, which they later rectify but neglect to cancel the call for help. – Prank calls from mobile phones or VHF radios or from people on shore shooting off distress flares. Sometimes seamen are careless when washing down decks and let water get into the EPIRB system, setting it off unintentionally. «We recently had the case of a cargo ship off the island of Aegina where one of the crew members accidentally let water into the EPIRB, setting off the signal and mobilizing our teams,» said a coast guard officer. «In these cases, the crew and captain are given a stern reprimand.» However, when a person is arrested for a prank call, he or she is prosecuted on the basis of Article 416 of the penal code for mobilizing the civil or military authorities under false pretenses.