When 1-year-old Lyra Kaufman was rescued hundreds of miles off the Mexican coast, her parents were criticized for taking an infant on a dangerous voyage, creating an avoidable rescue mission paid for by taxpayers. The U.S. Coast Guard is primarily responsible for U.S. search-and-rescue efforts at sea, but it does not as a matter of policy seek reimbursement for typical rescue missions.
Lyra Kaufman was suffering from a fever and a rash when her parents, Eric and Charlotte Kaufman, lost steering and communication abilities on their sailboat. They sent a satellite call for help to the U.S. Coast Guard on Thursday, and rescuers from the California Air National Guard parachuted down to the boat to help stabilize Lyra. She was transferred to a U.S. Navy ship on Sunday.
Carlos Diaz, acting chief of media relations for the Coast Guard, explained to CBS News why the Coast Guard does not seek reimbursement from mariners in distress.
"The Coast Guard values timely reporting of distress, and when a financial requirement is placed on that service, delays will occur as the cost of calling becomes a factor in the decision and put mariners at higher risk," he said. "Many other people on vessels in distress are passengers and crew who won't be involved in the decision to call the Coast Guard."
The Coast Guard has not disclosed the cost of the Kaufman rescue mission. On average, the Coast Guard spends around $50 million on more than 5,000 searches annually, according to a Coast Guard manual published last year.
The manual stresses this point: "While we must be mindful to employ a cost effective response to an incident, response to distress itself must not be delayed or limited by the misplaced concern of 'who is to pay the bill."
However, if a distress call turns out to be a hoax, there are serious consequences: It's a federal felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison to knowingly and willfully communicate a false distress message to the Coast Guard.