Types of Flares
Signal flares come in two basic designs; handheld and aerial.
Hand Held Flares
Hand held flares are tubular devices with a protective cap at one end which is removed to gain access to the ignition mechanism. Manufacturer instructions should be followed exactly when igniting the flare. Burn time is usually several minutes.
The performance of aerial flares is measured by the altitude of the projectile, the brightness of the signal measured in candela or candela units (CU), and the burn time of the signal.
- Gun Fired
Flares designed to be fired from a safety pistol come in two sizes 12 gauge and 25 MM. Both operate by placing a flare shell into the safety pistol breech, aiming, cocking the hammer of the pistol, and finally firing by pulling the trigger.
Flares of the 12 gauge size reach a height of around 500 feet (152 M) and burn for five to ten seconds. The 25MM flares do not reach as high of an altitude as the 12 gauge types but burn with about twice the brightness of the smaller shells.
These devices are becoming more common for their convenience and performance. Some are half the size of a handheld flare but exceed the performance of a 12 gauge pistol fired shell. These small flares can and should be tucked into one of the pockets of your floatation gear.
Then there are the rockets. During practice sessions these powerful signals are both intimidating and impressive to the uninitiated user. Safe deployment of these devices is essential because they can cause severe injury and damage if used incorrectly. The signal flare on some of these devices carries a parachute which allows the signal to be visible for 30-45 seconds. Altitudes of large rocket flares can be almost 3000 feet (~900 M).
Practice flares have clear markings on the exterior. All practice flares are white, rather than red, while burning. Use these flares to familiarize yourself with deploying an emergency signal.
Red flares which have expired are often used to train individuals who have not used flare signals. This should NOT be done with two exceptions; in the presence of a governing agency like the USCG or CCG, or when previous permission has been given by the governing agency. In both cases the person in charge of the training or demonstration should make a clear statement on the International Hailing and Distress VHF channel 16 which states the exact location, duration, type and number of signals to be fired for training.
Use of Flares
Always follow the instructions of the flare manufacturer exactly. Serious injury or property damage can occur if these devices are used incorrectly. Always be sure there are no easily combustible materials nearby that could catch fire because of malfunction or human error.
Hand Flare Safety
While standing, ignite the flare and hold it away from your body at a 45 degree angle. Do not hold a burning flare overhead, it could drop sparks on your head! Once the flare burns out place the remains in a non-combustible container or soak with water to avoid accidental ignition of other materials.
If you find yourself in the water ignite the flare while holding it away from your body. In this case it is essential to hold the flare as high out of the water as possible so it is visible to rescuers. Wave the signal from side to side over your head. Avoid looking at the flare while it is burning to avoid eye damage and to preserve night vision.
Flares can ignite spilled fuel floating on the surface of the water. Gasoline is much more easily ignited than diesel fuel but care should be taken when lighting a hand flare if any type of fuel was spilled.
Safe Handling of Aerial Flares
All aerial flares fire an inextinguishable projectile burning at approximately 3,000 Degrees F (1,600 Degrees C). The same rules that govern safe firearms use should be applied to aerial flares.
- Gun Fired Flares
- Self-Contained Aerial Flares and Rockets
To fire a shell from a safety pistol locate yourself away from overhead obstacles, load a flare shell into the pistol breech and close securely, hold the pistol overhead in the one o’clock position, cock the pistol hammer, turn your head away and pull the trigger.
Turning your head away will protect your eyes in the unlikely event of a misfire.
Do not load the pistol until ready to fire and never point the safety pistol at anyone. Do not fire a flare horizontally or into the water as it can skip off the surface and cause damage.
Everything said about gun fired flares and safety applies to self-contained and rocket flares. These devices need to be fired in the exact manner indicated by the manufacturer.
In general the device needs to be held securely away from the body with one hand while the other hand launches the projectile with a trigger or pull cord.
Take care when practicing with parachute flares because they are designed to burn until they hit the water. If a breeze aloft can possibly carry the parachute over land it is imperative to cancel or delay the demonstration. Many buildings have caught fire from flares landing on roofs while they are still burning.
Flares on Commercial Vessels
The number and type of flares carried on board is dependent on several factors. First is the area of operation. Offshore vessels use SOLAS approved devices, coastal or inland craft generally carry a smaller flare kit.
Classification Societies can sometimes specify what types of safety gear are on board, this includes pyrotechnic signals.
Individual rules from ship owners, masters, insurance companies, and local law enforcement can increase the number and type of signals a ship stocks.
Published by the International Maritime Organization (IMO); SOLAS stands for Safety of Life at Sea. SOLAS governs many aspects of safety including signal flares. Most commercial vessels and offshore recreational vessels adhere to SOLAS signal guidelines which are mainly designed for operations more than 50 miles (80 KM) from shore. SOLAS approved signals are required to meet standards for visibility and safety.
Also published by the International Maritime Organization; the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 (COLREGS) describes the use of signal flares.
A "rocket parachute flare or a hand flare showing a red light"..."indicates distress and need of assistance" at sea is one type of maritime distress signals. "The use or exhibition of any of the foregoing signals [as a hand flare showing a red light or rockets or shells, throwing red stars] except for the purpose of indicating distress and need of assistance and the use of other signals which may be confused with any of the above signals is prohibited."
Storage of Flares
Flares are stored at the discretion of the master of the vessel. In general, flares and other pyrotechnic signals are to be stored in a waterproof container in an accessible location. The container should be closed with a latch which cannot be locked. The container needs to be checked regularly for moisture.
Expiration Dates of Flares
All flares have an expiration date printed clearly on the outside of each device. Expired flares cannot be disposed of in the trash as they are hazardous waste. Properly dispose of expired flares at a hazardous waste facility or follow disposal instructions from the manufacturer or your safety equipment contractor.
In the eyes of governing agencies like the USCG an expired flare is the same as no flare at all. Commercial vessels are inspected frequently enough that expiring flares will be noticed and replaced well ahead of their end of service date. Equipment logs must always include expiration dates of all pyrotechnic signals on board a vessel.
History of Flares
It is known through historic depictions that Vikings and Polynesian voyagers used fire signals to communicate while at sea. In the 1870’s the wife of a deceased naval scientist patented and further developed an elaborate scheme to communicate with variously colored flares. Martha Coston’s patent was eventually purchased and used by the US Navy.