St. Pete Coast Guard reporting false alarms - WFLA News Channel 8

St. Pete Coast Guard reporting false alarms

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PINELLAS COUNTY, FL -

Coast Guard members working out the St. Petersburg sector are used to heading out into the Gulf of Mexico to save stranded boaters.  And every time a flare goes off and is reporter, crew members check it out.

"Coast Guard policy says every orange or red flare is an automatic go," explained operational unit controller, Jonathan Pankey. Pankey is in charge of directing every operation when a call comes in.

But lately, the Coast Guard has been getting a lot of false alarms. In the last few weeks, crew members have gone to check out five reports of flare usage that turned up nothing.

"The last few I've been out on, we get in the area where the search is, and there's nothing out there at all. No boats, no people, no debris fields," said helicopter pilot Lou Hodac.

These false alarms are costing tax payers time and money. Each search lasts for an average of four to six hours. Operating Coast Guard helicopters and planes can cost up to $18,000 an hour.

"We spent, just a week ago, about 43-thousand dollars sending out aircraft and boats searching out a flare where there was nothing in the water," said Hodac.

Crew members in St. Petersburg are using these false flares as a teachable moment for boaters. They want to remind boaters to keep working flares on board, but to only use them in case of emergency.

"It sounds like a good idea, it sounds fun," said Pankey. "I know we probably all used to do it as kids, but it's a terrible idea. It costs the public thousands and thousands of dollars, hours of man time, and it's just not worth it.

Setting off a flare under false pretenses and starting a Coast Guard operation is felony that can result in a $5,000 fine.

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