Problems with Pyrotechnics

Important considerations for Coast Guard-required signal devices.

I used to think that signal flares (aka pyrotechnic signal devices) were a good idea, but I’m not so sure anymore.

I used to think that the Coast Guard requirement to replace to signal flares every three years was a scam, but I’m not sure about that anymore either.

I also used to keep expired flares in my safety kit, in addition to the required three current flares, but my thinking about that has also changed.

What changed my thinking was a live-fire exercise staged on June 13 in Redondo Beach, California, by King Harbor Boating Foundation (KHBF.org) in coordination with the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary, as well as the Redondo Beach Harbor Patrol.

Foundation volunteer Steve Caldero invited local boaters to bring their outdated signal flares to Redondo Beach’s Moonstone Park on the shores of King Harbor and shoot them off under the close supervision of the Coast Guard and harbor patrol staff. Not only would it give boaters a chance to dispose of old flares, it would also give them practice in deploying pyrotechnic devices. Never one to turn down the chance to shoot off some rounds, I joined the event.

In the process, I learned three important things about Coast Guard-required signal devices.

1. Boaters are not required to carry flares. Contrary to what you might believe, this applies even when boating at night. That's because the Coast Guard's regulations for visual distress signals state that you can use an electric S-O-S distress light instead.

“This is an alternative to flares for recreational boats,” the regulation reads. “It is required to automatically flash S-O-S. Light intensity and duration requirements apply. Electric S-O-S distress lights are self-certified by the manufacturer. The Coast Guard does not issue approvals or keep an authenticated list of manufacturers. Approval standards for these lights are found in Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Subpart 161.013.”

At least one company makes such a light for boats – San Diego, California-based Sirius Signal (siriussignal.com). It claims to have the only Coast Guard-compliant replacement for flares and flare guns. The SOS Distress Light ($99.95) uses a CREE LED bulb, is powered by three C-batteries, illuminates for more than six hours, is visible for 10 miles, floats upright and has a handle that fits inside a rod holder. When combined with a distress signal flag, it meets all Coast Guard requirements for night and day visual distress signals.

The light lasts a lot longer than a flare (a 12-gauge aerial flare burns for only about 5 seconds), it’s safer to deploy, you don’t have to hold it and there’s no hot slag to burn you or your boat, as with a handheld flare.

2. More than 50 percent of outdated aerial flares are duds. As the video I shot at the June 13 event story illustrates, many expired flares don't operate properly. That's what I observed during the live-fire exercise over the waters of King Harbor. To be clear, most (but not all) aerial flares shot into the sky, but well over half failed to ignite once airborne. This applied to aerial flares with expiration dates as recent as 2011. Coastguardsman Gina Miele, who supervised the exercise, said that Coast Guard research backs up our experience. "That's why it is important to keep your flares up to date," she said.

This also negates the long-held wisdom that you can keep expired flares in your safety kit, as well as the required three current aerial flares. There’s more than a 50 percent chance that the old flares will be duds.

3. Properly disposing of old flares might easier than you think. According to Caldero, some counties in California collect expired flares as part of their household hazardous waste disposal days. "But only residents of that county can utilize those service," he adds. "Check with your county and it collects them, this is probably the best way to get rid of excess expired flares."