Flares prompt searches but no findings

  • A Coast Guard C-130 Hercules sits on the runway at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole. The Coast Guard launched C-130 Hercules aircraft twice in just over a week after reports of flares off the Kona Coast. (West Hawaii Today file photo)

KAILUA-KONA — Reports of flares off the Kona Coast have prompted two U.S. Coast Guard responses in just over a week, with each turning up no sign of distress.

“We treat each one as if it is an emergency and we will deploy a limited search because we always assume there is someone actually in danger,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew West with the Coast Guard District 14 in Honolulu. “It’s almost like a 911 call. We’re going to treat it as such — even if it’s just you firing off one for fun.”

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The first search commenced the night of Feb. 12 after reports began coming in shortly before 9 p.m. of flares sighted in waters off Kailua-Kona. The reports, which came in from callers in different areas of Kailua-Kona, ranged from a single white flare to four to six red flares being shot up in succession off the Kailua Pier, Honokohau Harbor or Holualoa Bay.

The Coast Guard was summonsed for a second search at 10:35 p.m. Feb. 16, after Honolulu watchstanders received a report of a red flare near the Captain Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay.

Both times, the Coast Guard launched air assets to assist the Hawaii Fire Department by scanning the coast during the night hours as well as at first light the next day. With no sightings, distress calls or emergency signals activated, the cases were subsequently closed.

Shooting off flares when not an emergency not only costs money, it also could delay the Coast Guard from responding to actual emergencies, should any arise.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, in 2018 it cost approximately $15,000 per hour to fly an HC-130 Hercules airplane, $10,000 per hour to fly an MH-60 helicopter, and $5,000 per hour to operate a Coast Guard small boat. Coast Guard aircraft are stationed on Oahu.

“We just request people don’t (shoot off flares) because those assets that we send to what turns out to be a false emergency could have been deployed to an actual emergency,” West said.

If a flare is shot off and there is not an emergency, whether accidental or not, the best thing to do is contact the Coast Guard Sector Honolulu at 842-2600.

“That way, if we do get a report of a flare we know this person just called us and told us,” West said. “As long as you’re doing the right thing, it’s nothing.”

But, knowingly and willfully communicating a false distress signal is a federal crime.

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Title 14 U.S.C. 88 (c) makes it a class D federal felony, punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and/or a monetary fine, for anyone who knowingly and willfully communicates a false distress message to the Coast Guard or causes the Coast Guard to attempt to save lives and property when no help is needed.

The statute also provides for a civil penalty of not more than $10,000 and holds the individual liable for all costs the Coast Guard incurs as a result of the individual’s actions.

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