Signal Flare Safety Tips (for Boats of All Sizes)

From the biggest supertankers cruising international waters to the smallest speedboats out for a fun weekend on the water, boats of all sizes have one crucial safety feature in common: emergency flares.

Required by law in many cases, and a good idea even when not mandated by local or federal guidelines, signal flares are a key part of any given vessel’s onboard safety equipment.

Thanks to their design, they’re also easily used by boaters of many ages and skill levels, and don’t require hours of training and certification in the event you need to use them during a crisis situation. Of course, like any onboard safety equipment, a lot of care should be taken to ensure that these flares are properly stored, maintained, and used so they always perform at their peak and don’t cause any bigger safety issues on the boat itself. If you’re wondering what you can do to make your onboard signal flares safer to use and longer-lasting, we’ve got a few tips here that can help boats of any size:

Mind the expiration dates
We can all admit we’re sometimes a little less mindful of expiration dates when it comes to food than maybe we should be, but you can’t take that risk with signal flares. Before you head out on the water, every time you go out (and we do mean every time), inspect your signal flares to make sure you have several of each type and to make sure they’re all usable and within their expiration dates – otherwise, you’re going to need to replace them before you hit the water. (For reference, the current service life of most safety pyrotechnic devices is 42 months from the date of manufacture – but don’t get complacent, that time limit can creep up on you faster than you expect.)

Store all flares properly
Due to their incendiary nature and potential volatility, flares need to be stored with the utmost care and concern for their proper use and conditions. Keep them in a dry place away from any potential moisture (which can be difficult on boats, so be sure to use watertight containers wherever possible), but make sure they’re still accessible to anyone who needs them, so keeping them locked may not be the best choice in the event of an emergency. Be sure to store them away from open heat or fire as well to prevent accidental ignition and reduce the safety risk to your boat and crew.

Understand the different types of flares
To the uninitiated, ‘flares’ might bring to mind the bright glowing sparks that you see along the side of the highway to indicate a vehicle breakdown, but there’s actually several different kinds, all with different uses. The most commonly used types of flares on boats include:


  • Parachute flares, which release a parachute to carry the flare into the sky as the flare itself burns below it to signal passing vehicles
  • Red hand flares, which burn a bright red flare that can still be held by hand not unlike a flashlight or torch, which are perhaps the most common kind and the one most comparable to the standard road flares you’ve seen before
  • Orange smoke flares, a longer flare that generates a thick plume of orange smoke designed to attract the attention of passing aircraft

Knowing how each one works and what situations they need to be used in is crucial for proper flare usage and increasing the chances of a potential rescue.

Handle each flare very carefully
For all the safety benefits they provide, flares can provide an additional hazard if used incorrectly. If you find yourself in a situation where flares are needed, make sure to use them properly: never shoot a flare downwind, never point them at or near anyone, hold them far away from your body, and read all needed instructions on the flare itself before usage. Misusing flares is a quick way to make your situation a lot worse.

If you or a loved one have been injured on the water due to the negligence of a shipowner, you need the maritime attorneys of O’Bryan Law.

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