Signal Flares: Practice Makes Perfect

Updated: May 13


Do you know how to use your boat’s distress signal flares to summon help in the case of an emergency? If you have never practiced with signal flares, you may use them improperly. Familiarity with the operation of safety and survival gear is fundamental to your preparation for emergencies. In this article, we have adapted the flares training protocol we use in AMSEA marine safety classes for use in an emergency procedures drill on a commercial fishing boat. The same procedure can be used on any vessel where the crew wants to practice with signal flares.

Really, I Can Do That?

At AMSEA, we practice with signal flares several times each year in our Marine Safety Instructor Training classes. You can practice with signal flares too, but you need to take precautions to ensure the safety of your boat and crew during the drill. You must also take adequate measures to ensure that your drill does not result in an unnecessary search for a vessel in distress.

Location

Your boat is an ideal platform for practicing with signal flares. Just do it well away from other boats and far enough from shore to be sure that aerial flares will not drift onto flammable structures or vegetation downwind from your location. Be at least one-half mile from shore. Also, make sure you are well away from any airports and aviation flight paths.

Safety Gear

Pyrotechnic flares can drip hot slag and ash when burning. For this reason, everyone practicing with flares needs to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Your PPE should include leather gloves and eye protection, like safety glasses, safety goggles, or a face shield. It's best to wear a long sleeve shirt, long pants, and fully enclosed shoes when practicing with flares.

Beyond PPE, you should have at hand, a first aid kit containing materials for treating burns. If you are practicing with aerial flares, you will need a steel container in which to place any duds. A military surplus ammunition box that fits your longest aerial flare is a good choice.

Communications

You will be practicing with devices that are intended to signal for help in case of emergency. So, you need to let others know that you are practicing and not actually in trouble. Make a phone call to the U.S. Coast Guard and let them know when and where you will be conducting your drill. Then contact your local first responders (police, fire department, search and rescue team,), local harbormaster, and the FAA and give them the same information. If you can think of anyone else in the vicinity that might be expected to respond to a distress signal, let them know. That guy who lives on the nearby island may jump in his skiff and try to rescue you!

Five minutes before you start your drill, make a Sécurité announcement on VHF channel 16:

“Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité. This is the fishing vessel <boat name>. We will conduct a drill with signal flares at <time> and <your position>. This is only a drill.”

You can give your position in relation to a charted geographic point or as latitude and longitude, whichever will be best understood by anyone nearby. Immediately before starting your drill, again make a Sécurité announcement on VHF channel 16:

“Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité. This is the fishing vessel <boat name>. We are commencing a drill with signal flares at <your position>. This is only a drill.”

Stand by on VHF channel 16 and be prepared to respond to any calls concerning your signals. Others may see your signals and they may not have heard your Sécurité announcement.

Safe Usage of Pyrotechnic Signals

Before lighting or launching any pyrotechnic signal, be sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions and any safety warnings. Be sure you understand the instructions completely. Before allowing a crew member to practice with a device, make sure that they have read and understood the manufacturer’s instructions. Then, make sure that they follow those directions. With that in mind, here are some general guidelines for safely practicing with signal flares.

  • Always wear PPE, especially leather gloves and eye protection.

  • Have individual crewmembers practice one at a time. Keep control of the drill. It’s not July 4th!

  • When igniting handheld flares and smoke signals, hold them away from your body and out over the water to prevent hot slag from dripping onto the deck.

  • Make sure that the wind is at your back so that smoke, flames, and dripping slag do not blow back onto you or the boat.

  • Some smoke signals are designed to float in the water and the canister will get very hot after ignition. Set these devices into the water after igniting.

  • Treat aerial meteor flares and parachute flares like a loaded gun.

  • Never point an aerial flare at yourself or another person.

  • Do not launch aerial flares in the direction of aircraft or other boats.

  • Point the launcher into the sky at a 60° to 85° angle. Do not launch an aerial flare straight up.

  • Observe the direction of the wind. Do not launch a flare in a direction where it can drift down onto your boat or another vessel.

  • Keep a firm grip on the launcher. The strong recoil of some aerial flares could cause you to lose control of the launcher, resulting in serious injury to yourself or others.

  • If an aerial flare misfires, DO NOT LOOK DOWN THE BORE OF THE LAUNCHER! If it doesn’t launch after a few seconds, place it in the steel duds container.

  • Keep any duds outside and on deck until they can be disposed of safely.

At the conclusion of your drill, make a Sécurité announcement that your drill has concluded:

“Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité. This is the fishing vessel <boat name>. We have concluded our drill with signal flares at <your position>.”

Clean up any debris, such as the cool remains of handheld flares and smoke signals, and dispose of them with your boat’s trash when you get to shore. If you have any dud signals, contact your municipality’s waste management department for advice on safe disposal. If you are operating a commercial fishing vessel, be sure to log your drill to demonstrate your compliance efforts, meeting the monthly drill requirements of 46 CFR 28.270.

Outdated Flares

Often, we are asked how to dispose of outdated signal flares. Once your flares are outdated, our advice is to contact your municipality’s waste management department to learn about your options for disposing of hazardous materials. But, your best option may be to not let them become expired in the first place, by conducting a flares drill. You can use your soon-to-expire flares to practice the skills you will need to safely signal for help in an actual emergency.


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