Visual Distress Signals

We normally see flares placed along the side of the highway, put there by Highway Patrol, truck drivers or tow truck drivers indicating “caution” as there is an accident or disabled vehicle ahead. By nature we subconsciously relate flares to delays (traffic jams) or someone’s having a bad day (a wrecked vehicle) and for the most part, on land that’s normally a pretty accurate assumption. Visual distress signals are SOP for emergency personnel.

However, when we venture onto the world’s waterways the flare takes on additional meanings and is a key survival tool. Just like any other piece of survival equipment we need to understand the principles of operation and the universal meanings the equipment is designed to indicate. Flares are mandated by law in boats of certain sizes, but carrying a flare while hiking or hunting in the wilderness is a good precautionary tool.

Types of Pyrotechnic and Non-Pyrotechnic Devises

  1. Red Hand-held Flares ( used day or night)
  2. Parachute Flare (used day or night)
  3. Red Meteor Flare (used day or night)
  4. Orange Smoke Signal (hand held – day only)
  5. Floating Orange Smoke Signal (used day only)
  6. Orange Signal Flag (used day only)
  7. Electric Distress Light (used night only)

General Rules Regarding Flares:

  1. Flares are used to signal your distress, obviously you want them stored where they can be quickly and easily accessed. You don’t want to be rummaging through life jackets and fishing tackle trying to reach the flares stored at the bottom of the storage compartment. Always store flares vertical in a watertight container.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the flares operation before you need to use them. Again, you’re in a distress situation, you don’t want to be trying to read the manufacturer’s instructions on how to deploy the flare. Not all flares work the same.
  3. Purchase only good quality flares, Coast Guard or equivalent rated, trying to save a few bucks by buying inferior quality of a piece of equipment which could save your life is just plain stupid. As a rule of thumb flares are good for up to 4 years from date of manufacture, which will be stamped on the flare. Check them periodically.
  4. Only use flares in an emergency situation. Discharge of a flare for a non-emergency situation is illegal. Why? As stated, there are rules of the sea that apply regarding flares. If someone spots a flare, a universal sign of distress, authorities will be notified and deployed to your location. What happens if a Coast Guard cutter, helicopter and Water Patrol boat suddenly appears to rescue you, but you were just kidding around when you launched the flare. Be prepared for a hefty fine and possibly jail time.
  5. When discharging an aerial flare. The flare should be shot at an angle into the prevailing wind. This will allow the wind to assist the flare maintain elevation as long as possible. Should the wind be strong, reduce the angle aiming more straight up into the air.
  6. Use common sense. Don’t deploy a flare unless you see a boat, airplane or some one on shore that you know can see the flare. That may sound silly, but you’d be surprised what people do in a stressful situation.flaregunFlare gun kit

What Do They Do?

  1. The Rocket Parachute Flare;. Creates a single red star or flame;. Reaches a height of @ 300m or 984′ and floats slowly downward with a parachute;

    . Is easily seen from the ground or air;

    . Burns for @ 40 seconds.

  2. Smoke Signal Flare:. Creates a dense orange fog which expands with the breeze;. Can only be used during daylight as there is no illumination.
  3. The Multi Star Flare:. Creates two or more red stars or flames;. Reaches a height of 100 m or 328′ and burns for @ 4-6 seconds;

    . Easily seen from land or air.

  4. Hand Held Flare:. Produces a red flame torch which is held in hand, away from the body;. Limited visibility from the ground unless view is unobstructed by foliage, etc

    . Best used to assist air searchers to locate you;

    . Burns for @ 1 minute.

What the Different Colors Mean: Visual Distress Signals

Red distress flares are to be used only in cases of extreme emergency, such as serious injury or heart attack. However, if I’m out of fuel 2 miles from shore … that’s an extreme emergency to me.

Orange distress flares indicated the same emergency meaning as red flares, but are primarily used during the daylight hours because their billowing orange smoke is much more visible than the red flare.

White Flares are used to warn others of your location in order to avoid collisions. They are excellent for illuminating the water at night for a Man Overboard situation, especially when coupled with a parachute. Don’t be surprised if a novice mariner comes to investigate your white flare as they won’t know the designation of said color.

What should I do if I see a distress flare?

There is an unwritten rule, which has been adhered to by mariners for centuries, that requires any mariner to positively respond to a stress call or flare. Your first step is to alert the coast guard or other emergency service and make them aware of the distress signal. If you are in a position to offer assistance, do so immediately, however, don’t place your boat or your safety in jeopardy. It won’t do anybody any good to require the coast guard to rescue 2 boats in distress.Visual distress signals are one of the best methods to attract attention and rescue.




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