What Should You Do Before Using Distress Flares? 

Carrying flares and visual distress signals in a vessel registered in the US is a legal requirement as defined by the US Coastguard regulations.

Flares are essential safety equipment that may decide the outcome of an emergency.

At a Glance:
1️⃣ The flares must be in a good state and not be expired.

2️⃣ The boat’s occupants should know where they are and how to handle them.

3️⃣ The occupants must also be aware of under what circumstances they are used.

4️⃣ The use of flares should be part of the emergency response plan.

📝 Pre-Emergency Safety Equipment Checklist

The things to do before an emergency happens are listed below.

Equipment Check 

Distress flares should be stored vertically in a cool, dry place, ideally a watertight container. It’s important to keep them away from heat sources, flammable liquids, and gas.

They should be kept close at hand so that they are easily accessible in the event of an emergency.

🎓 Note: Aerial flares should be fired at an angle into the wind. If the wind is strong, the firing angle must be reduced.

The Expiry Dates

Check that all the flares are still current and in good condition. A good idea to follow is to log the expiry date (actually one month before) as a reminder on your phone.

You will get a reminder a month before the flares run out and can replace them timeously.

The Condition Of The Flares

Before you set off, always ensure the flares remain undamaged and dry. Ideally, they should be kept in a waterproof ditch bag which keeps them accessible and also in good condition.

Passenger And Crew Training

Before you set sail, the captain and the passengers must know what to do in an emergency.

One of the functions may be to fire off distress flares. In this regard, the occupants of the boat must know the following:

  • Where the flares are stored in the vessel.
  • Which flares should be used under different circumstances?
  • How to use each of the flares.
  • The safety precautions that need to be followed when using a flare.

The six rules to follow when discharging a pyrotechnic distress flare are listed below.

1️⃣ Follow the Instructions

2️⃣ Face Downwind

3️⃣ Hold them away from your body (if possible, also wear eye protection).

4️⃣ Keep the angle at which you fire them lower than 45 degrees.

5️⃣ Aim with Care (Do not point them at anyone).

6️⃣ Look Away Before You Fire

🚨 Emergency Response Plan On Boat

Even though the boat is seaworthy and secure with little likelihood of an impending disaster, emergency situations happen quickly with little warning.

It is a good idea to have an emergency response plan that is laminated and displayed prominently somewhere in the boat.

In the event of an emergency, If the craft is too small, copies of the laminated Emergency Response Plan can be kept in the ditch bag and a cubby hole.

This article is too short to describe a comprehensive emergency plan; however, the following provides some pointers regarding preparing one:

1️⃣ Identify the possible emergencies (fire, collision, engine failure, capsizing, hull breach, illness, injury, or assisting other vessels.)

2️⃣ The first action is to identify the cause and, if possible, to minimize the effects, put out a fire, carry out emergency first aid, etc.

3️⃣ Secure the boat occupants from injury (ensure they wear life jackets or other personal flotation devices.)

4️⃣ Secure the ditch bag.

5️⃣ Ensure that the life raft or dinghy is not damaged and in the water.

6️⃣ Decide under what conditions the vessel will be abandoned.

7️⃣ The strategies and sequence involved in contacting emergency services (radio, EBIRP, Flares, distress signals.)

Ensure All Of The Boats Occupants Know The Plan And Their Roles

Always ensure the boat occupants read the plan and know their responsibilities.

This may be to stay out of the way of the crew affecting emergency repairs, be responsible for the ditch bag, administer first aid (if qualified), man the radios, or assist with the damage mitigation work. 

Practicing Emergency Drills

It is useful to have a standard briefing for the passengers without making each departure a scary event where you expect an emergency.

Briefings may follow in the sequence listed below.

1️⃣ Ensure the passengers and crew are wearing correctly fitting life jackets.

2️⃣ Ensure that they are aware of the potential dangers and know what to do if something happens.

3️⃣ They should know where the ditch bag is and what its purpose is.

4️⃣ Where to find the first aid kit (it should be in the ditch bag) and where it is kept.

5️⃣ They should know where the flares and other signaling devices are.

6️⃣ Finally, they should know how to operate the radio.

💬 Communication During Distress Strategies

As discussed, one of the points listed in the Emergency Response Plan is how and when to communicate with the authorities or other nearby vessels.

If possible, the first communication should be by radio to the coastguard or other rescue facility. In this regard, having all of the appropriate distress frequencies listed next to the radio is critical.

If the radio is inactive or you must abandon the boat, it is time to deploy the EBIRP. This will start a rescue sequence to ensure that rescue services know your location and will get the SAR services to you as fast as possible.

If you can hear a boat or aircraft in the vicinity and cannot communicate via radio, fire a parachute flare.

If they are searching for you, it will help them locate you; if not, it will alert them of a distressed situation.

After this, If the vessel is 3 – 5 miles away, light a handheld flare, which will help direct the services to your position.

You can also decide when and under what circumstances the emergency smoke canisters and water dye are deployed. 

⚖️ Legal Considerations

The regulations regarding the carriage, use, and disposal of flares must always be followed.

Carriage Of Flares

The US Coastguard regulations regarding the number and type of flares must be followed.

The coast guard also requires that the flares must be in serviceable condition and kept in an easily accessible place. 

Use Of Flares

Substantial penalties are applied when the distress signal is used for anything other than in distress circumstances.

Even though there are no regulations regarding the use of the flare, every person in a US jurisdiction has a duty of care to others. If their actions cause injury or death, they may be criminally and/or legally liable.

Disposal Of Flares

Expired signal beacons are considered hazardous waste and must be disposed of accordingly.

Even though the correct disposal requirements are regulated, there are only a few facilities in North America that will accept them!

The list of these facilities can be found at the following link.

🔑 Key Takeaways

1️⃣ Equipment Check: Store distress flares in a cool, dry, and easily accessible place.

2️⃣ Flare Condition: Ensure flares are current, undamaged, and dry. Log expiry dates for reminders.

3️⃣ Training: All on board should know flare storage, usage, and safety precautions.

4️⃣ Emergency Plan: Have a plan identifying emergencies, securing occupants, and contacting SAR services. Everyone should know their roles in it.

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.