What Happens to Boaters Who Shoot Off Flares During Fireworks Shows?

I was watching Fourth of July fireworks from my boat this weekend, and I was shocked at how many private boats were shooting off signal flares during the regular show that was sponsored by the city. It occurred to me that we would be in bad shape if we had a genuine distress situation, with all of those flares going off around us. I’m sure Coast Guard regulations prohibit this kind of behavior, but what exactly are the penalties?
Our reader is correct. The Coast Guard receives more than 600 false distress calls each year, costing taxpayers millions of dollars in wasted resources. Many of these events are prank calls made by VHF radio — but each year, 20 to 30 percent of these false calls are made by visual signals, such as parachute flares.

Coast Guard regulations and various federal statutes address the problem by subjecting offenders to significant civil and criminal penalties. U.S. Code Title 14, section 88 provides that an individual 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 is guilty of a Class D federal felony. This may subject him or her to up to six years in federal prison, up to $250,000 in fines and reimbursement of all costs the Coast Guard incurs as a result of the false distress signal or call.

The most serious penalties are assessed against perpetrators of hoax VHF radio distress calls, since these are seen as purposeful attempts to waste Coast Guard resources. These calls may interfere with a legitimate distress call, which may place Coast Guard personnel and other boaters at risk — and, as such, these calls are treated as the most egregious violations.

For example, in 1990, a father and son died after their fishing vessel, Sol E Mar, sank off Woods Hole, Mass. The fishermen had placed a legitimate distress call at the same time the Coast Guard received a hoax call.

More recently, on June 14, Coast Guard rescue crews suspended a search for four people who reportedly abandoned ship in the vicinity of Sandy Hook, N.J. This case is now being investigated as a possible hoax call.

Boaters often look at civic fireworks festivities as an opportunity to discharge expired marine flares. And, while this may be done without any intent to commit a hoax, the firing of a red marine flare in a non-emergency is still a false distress message — and, as such, it is a federal crime and it will be treated as such.

Unfortunately, a marine flare is a hazardous device, and an expired marine flare is considered to be a type of hazardous waste. State laws and regulations prohibit the disposal of hazardous waste in the trash and in municipal landfills. Some counties accept marine flares from the public as part of their Household Hazardous Waste disposal programs — but only residents of these counties can utilize those services. Visit coastal.ca.gov/ccbn/Ca_Flares.pdf for a list of counties that accept marine flares in their hazardous waste disposal programs.

If your county accepts them for disposal, this is the best way to dispose of expired flares. Boaters in other counties should contact their local fire department for disposal instructions, unless they are prepared to face federal criminal prosecution as a penalty for their private fireworks show.

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