Pyrotechnic / Visual Distress Signals
Revised by BoatUS editors in June 2012
If there is one type of boating safety equipment you are unlikely to use until you need it in an emergency, it's pyrotechnic/visual distress signals: flares, rockets, smoke signals, and other attention-getting devices that burn, sputter, smoke, or explode. The Coast Guard requires boaters to carry approved visual distress signals, and approves two types: pyrotechnic and nonpyrotechnic devices. The nonpyrotechnic approved device is a three foot orange flag for day use only. (Dye markers and signal mirrors, though useful to attract attention and often carried by boaters, are not Coast Guard approved.)
In the pyrotechnic category, the regulations are broad and how you fill the requirements for your particular type of boating is fairly flexible. The choices include a variety of red handheld or aerial flares for day and/or night use, and devices that emit orange smoke for daytime use. The Coast Guard sets a 42-month service life and expiration dates are stamped on the devices. The International Maritime Organization approves signals for commercial use on the high seas with a SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) rating. These devices far exceed Coast Guard standards for luminosity and many boaters use the more expensive SOLAS devices for the added margin of safety they provide. If you opt for pyrotechnics, you must carry three devices approved for day and/or night use, but beyond that, you have the choice to mix and match what you wish to carry. By far, pyrotechnics are the popular choice and the majority of boaters opt to meet minimum Coast Guard requirements with handheld flares or gun-launched meteors that are approved for day/night use.
But is that the best choice for you? And with the variety of pyrotechnic devices on the market, are there others that would be better for the kind of boating you do?
Since few boaters get the chance to actually use pyrotechnics visual distress signals prior to an emergency, the BoatU.S. Foundation for Boating Safety decided to test a range of commonly available Coast Guard approved devices. We hope this vicarious visit with visual distress signals will help you think through your options in making what could be life-saving decisions.
Don't Try This at Home
We conducted our tests on the Chesapeake Bay off Sandy Point State Park in cooperation with the Maryland Natural Resources Police, Maryland State Police, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Our technicians established two stations for the test boat, one at a quarter-mile off the beach and the other at a half-mile. On shore they set up equipment to gauge the approximate altitude above the water attained by aerial flares, measure burn time for all devices, and to document each test photographically.
The crew, comprised of experienced boaters and landlubbers alike, recorded subjective assessments for brilliance and overall visibility as well. The crew afloat, using a 29' powerboat as the anchored test platform, launched flares with the help of a gunwale-mounted fixed trajectory launching rail. They also confirmed burn times with a stop watch and took notes on "user friendliness" and safety values.
The Cold Light of Day
Since so many boaters carry handheld and aerial flares that are approved for day/night use, we wanted to see just how effective these are in daytime conditions. They aren't. Our shore crew found the Coast Guard-approved hand-helds very poor at attracting attention. SOLAS flares were only marginally better in daylight but burned only half as long. Luminosity ratings range from 500 candle power (c.p.) to 15,000 c.p. We found the lowest-rated flares virtually invisible in daylight and the highest rated flares only slightly more visible.
While all handhelds exceeded manufacturer specifications for burn time, beware: These devices generate considerable slag as they burn (hold them well overboard) and they get hot, especially SOLAS flares which burn inside a metal tube that gets really hot.
Aerial flares are also not very visible or attention-getting in daytime, either, and except for the parachute types, burn time is a scant five to six seconds, on average. Real-world conditions of wind, vessel motion, and the angle of the shooter's arm at firing moment can dramatically affect height. Remember, these devices are like firearms and should be treated with equal respect. In fact, we found that aerial flares with self-contained launchers can deliver a strong recoil, posing a risk of injury.
For daytime use, we found the orange smoke devices to be, by far, the most effective at attracting attention. All smoke devices exceeded manufacturer's specifications for burn time and the "hang time" of the brilliant orange plume, even in a moderate breeze, makes smoke our choice for day signaling. Save the flares for after dark.
Rockets' Red Glare
For nighttime distress signaling there are three factors to consider: brightness, burn time, and with aerials, altitude. In the textbook night rescue, your aerial flare, be it meteor or parachute, gets attention and the handheld flare is then used to guide the assisting vessel or aircraft to you.
Unless you are quite a distance from shore or from other help, altitude may not be as critical a factor as luminosity and burn time. In our tests, we found that the Coast Guard-approved parachute flares burned for an average of 25 seconds, while the SOLAS parachute burned for 43 seconds. Yet depending on where you go boating, on rivers, lakes, or other confined waters, for example, meteor flares could be just as effective. Remember they have a short (5-6 second) burn time but cost considerably less so you can stock up accordingly.
When it comes to buying visual distress signals, let's face it, you are spending money on something you may never use. If you've been a boater for any length of time, you've probably got a pile of out-of-date hand-held flares and signal rockets aboard your boat. But to be in compliance, you must have unexpired units. Many boaters, however keep expired units aboard as back-up. Since this is such a common practice, we decided to test a variety of expired devices-some long out of date-to see if their performance had diminished.
The answer is yes. There really is a reason for those expiration dates. These devices use a variety of chemicals, all of which can deteriorate over time, either limiting burn time or altitude, or causing the device to fail altogether. We found expired hand-held flares that were very hard to ignite or didn't seem to burn as brightly as they should, and meteor flares that didn't fly as high or burn as long as advertised claims. A few failed to fire at all. However, we still think (and the Coast Guard does, too) that expired pyrotechnic devices are good for backup; just don't depend on them.
In considering which pyrotechnic devices to equip your boat with, remember the two-fold purpose of visual distress signals: to signal that you're in trouble and to direct help to your location. From our experience, small boats in daylight near shore and with heavy boat traffic should consider carrying three hand-held smoke flares to guide assistance to them. Big boats on large bodies of water and night boaters may be best advised to carry aerial meteors or parachute flares to attract attention and handheld flares for help to home-in on. Think of it this way: Aerials give height (that is visibility from a greater distance) while hand-helds give duration. Smoke is the best option for day only signaling.
Also consider that exposure justifies expenditure. While SOLAS flares and aerials can be three to four times more expensive, in offshore or remote locations that could be money well spent. As a compromise, however, you may want to carry extra non-SOLAS devices.
You and your crew should be thoroughly familiar with how each device operates, even if you can't discharge them (it's against the law in nonemergency situations). Attending demonstrations of proper handling and use of these devices that are offered by many U.S. Power Squadrons and U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas is a great way to gain firsthand knowledge. Store your pyrotechnics in a red or orange watertight container marked "Distress Signals" and store in a dry, but readily accessible place.
A Note About Disposal
The U.S. Coast Guard no longer accepts old pyrotechnics for disposal, but check with local Coast Guard Auxiliary flotillas; they may be able to use them for safety demonstrations. However, the devices must be Coast Guard-approved, U.S. made, and less than five years old. Failing that, the Coast Guard recommends you take them to your local hazardous waste facility.