What Is A Common Feature Of All Distress Flares?

Distress flares are a member of the family of marine Visual Distress Signals (VDS.) These include pyrotechnic devices, smoke generators, signaling mirrors, and signal flags.

The common features all distress flares share are:

1️⃣ They are designed to attract attention or to direct searchers to the boat.

2️⃣ All pyrotechnic devices expire after 42 months.

3️⃣ They are only valid if they are class approved and kept in good condition.

4️⃣ They are only useful if they are easily accessible.

🚨 The Common Features Of Distress Flares 

The common features common to all distress flares are listed below.

Designed To Get Attention

All of the VSD devices operate in the visual light spectrum, which is used to communicate a distress signal or to emit a very intense and bright light for two purposes.

  1. The bright light gets people’s attention.
  2. A flare can be used to direct rescuers to the scene.

A Common Shelf Life

All marine flares are considered expired after 42 months. If they have expired, then you should know how to properly dispose of them.

The Same Restrictions On Their Use

Distress flares carried on US-registered boats are required to conform to the following.

  1. All distress signals are required to be US Coast Guard-approved.
  2. They must be safely stored, be unexpired and remain in good condition.
  3. US Coast Guard regulations require that they are readily accessible in an emergency.

🎇 What Are The Different Types Of Distress Flares? 

There are several types of distress flares, as listed below.

Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals (VDS)

Pyrotechnic flares include any Visual Distress System (VDS) that requires an exothermic (A chemical reaction that releases energy) reaction to activate.

The U.S. Coast Guard approves the following pyrotechnic distress flares type.

  1. Hand-held flares.
  2. Aerial red flares.
  3. Hand-held orange smoke flares.
  4. Aerial orange smoke flares.
  5. Parachute flares.
  6. Red meteor flares.

The associated launchers of each of the flares are also approved.

Non-Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals (VDS)

These distress devices do not require an exothermic reaction to produce light or signal for attention.

The VDS devices that fall into this category include the following.

Marker Dyes

Marker Dyes are poured into the water and color the surrounding area to a radius of 50 meters.

Marker dyes are only effective during the day and possibly on nights with a full moon and clear sky. 

Orange Signal Flags

Orange is the international color that signals distress. 

Orange Signal Flags have markings consisting of a black square and a black ball printed above, alongside, or below on an orange background.

The flag is flown above a mast or other high point to ensure it can be seen by other mariners.

Flags are effective for reporting distress during the day but are invisible at night.


Mirrors fall into the category of non-pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals (VDS.)

They are used to reflect the sun back in the direction of another vessel or aircraft. This shining light is very effective on sunny days and less so if there is extensive cloud cover.

Mirrors are useless at night.

Electric Distress Flares

As the name implies, electric distress flares are essentially bright, battery-powered LED lights. These devices are used in the same way as hand-held flares. 

They are superior to Pyrotechnic Visual Distress Signals (VDS) at night because they will remain lit for up to 20 hours.

Most devices can float, which is useful in an emergency. They are effective at night but not during the day.

🆘 When And How Should Distress Flares Be Used? 

Before visual distress signals are used, the following should be in place.

An Emergency Plan

An emergency must be planned for. This includes a written action plan with assigned responsibilities in an emergency.

The plan will discuss the following:

Safety Devices

The plan will outline the boat owner’s requirements for what safety devices are worn and when they must be worn.

These may include the following:

  1. Life jackets or other Personal Flotation Devices.
  2. Man Overboard transmitters.
  3. Lanyards attached to the engine cut-off switch (helmsman only.)

Fire Extinguishers

What fire extinguishers are used for the different types of fire? It will also discuss the need to train the crew on their effective use.

Where the extinguishers are installed.

Assign individual crew members (or passengers on a long cruise) to each fire extinguisher.

Engine Trouble

The plan will discuss support for the engineer in establishing the fault with the engine.

It will also discuss when the radio should be used to call for assistance.

Finally, it will confirm which crew members must keep watch and keep a situational awareness of other boat traffic.

Man Overboard (MOB)

A plan should be in place to achieve the following:

  1. Identify that someone has gone overboard.
  2. Communicate the fact.
  3. Mark the position to enable an immediate return to the incident location.
  4. How the person will be retrieved.


If the boat starts to sink, the plan will discuss the following:

  • Action to be taken to stop it from sinking (use of bilge pumps etc.)
  • When and in what sequence during the emergency is signaling done.
  • At what point the lifeboats or rafts (or dinghies) are launched.
  • How each person’s lifejacket or other flotation device is checked to ensure it is secure.
  • Who gives the command to abandon the ship. 


The plan will discuss the action to be taken in the event of a collision. It will include the following activities:

  • A roll call.
  • Damage assessment.
  • Action to be taken to preserve life.

Distress Signaling

The plan will discuss the options available to send a distress signal. These may include the following equipment:

  • Radio (May Day call)
  • EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon)
  • PLB (Personal locator beacon)
  • Man Overboard Device
  • Pyrotechnic Flares
  • Non-Pyrotechnic devices

The plan will discuss in what order each device is used and what conditions require moving to the next device.

When To Use The Flares

Flares should only be used in strict accordance with the marine emergency plan.

If the authorities have been notified and are en route to the scene (with an acceptable ETA), there is no need to use the flares to attract attention.

If the radios are inoperable, a distress signal is required.

If an EPIRB is on board, it is time to switch it on. The distress signal lasts 48 hours, and search and rescue (SAR) activities are commenced speedily from the nearest appropriate rescue center.

When The Search Craft Are In The Vicinity

The flares should only be activated when the SAR boats can be heard.

It is only possible to see a small boat or people in the water from 3 – 5 miles away.

  1. Because of this, it is a good practice to fire a red aerial flare (preferably a parachute flare with a long burn time) into the air, where it will hopefully be seen.
  2. Once the vessel has indicated it is nearby, it is time to start lighting hand-held red flares to guide the rescue personnel.
  3. In clear daylight, smoke is an effective option.

When The Search Craft Is An Aircraft

Marker Dyes and smoke are useful if the search is conducted by an aircraft in daylight. 

Distress Signals For Different Times Of Day

The different distress signals are useful at different times of day and night and in varying light conditions. 

Flare TypeDaytimeNight Time or bad weather
Radio MaydayYesYes
Hand-held flaresYesYes
Aerial red flaresYesYes
Hand-held orange smoke flaresYesNo
Aerial orange smoke flaresYesNo
Parachute flaresYesYes
Red meteor flaresYesYes
Marker DyesYesNo
Signal FlagsYesNo
Electric Distress FlaresNoYes

Flares should only be used by following the instructions (which should be read and understood before an emergency.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.