Distress Flares! The dangers and using them safely.

, ,

Distress flares are a valuable safety item that can aid rescuers in locating you in the event of an emergency but…they can be extremely dangerous!

While flares are easy to use it’s important that you know how to use them properly and safely to ensure you don’t get injured. First, let’s look at the 3 types of flares used in maritime today.

Orange Smoke

When activated, they let off a cloud of orange smoke, which can’t be extinguished due to heavy rain or howling wind. These are good as a line-of-sight distress signal, but because there’s nothing burning (and so nothing glowing) they’re suited for daytime use only.

Red Handheld

These are effective as a line-of-sight distress signal by day and night. Red handheld flares are very bright with a good visibility range. They are very visible from an aircraft and will usually burn for up to 60 seconds.

Parachute or Rocket

These flares are capable of attracting attention in daylight for up to 10 miles depending on conditions and up to 40 miles at night. The rocket launches the flare up to a height of about 300 meters and the flare burns for 40-60 seconds as it slowly descends. Don’t use this type of flare when there is a helicopter or aircraft overhead.

Flare readiness

It’s important that you read and understand the activating instructions for your flares before you need to use them. Tying to read the instructions in an emergency situation when you’re under pressure and stressed can lead to serious injury or a failure to let the flare off when most needed.

  • Activating mechanisms vary so make sure that you read the instructions printed on the sides. It’s not the right time to learn how to use a flare when you’re in trouble on the water.
  • If you’re the Master it’s your responsibility to ensure all your crew know where they are stowed and how to use them.
  • As a crew member you should take responsibility and know where they are stowed and how to use them.
  • Always store flares in a waterproof container in an area that is easily accessible in the event of an emergency.
  • Remember, distress flares are not toys and should never be played or tampered with at any time.

Activating Distress Flares

You’re in an emergency situation and need to attract attention to help rescuers narrow down your position but…do not let off your flares until there is someone to see them.

  • Hold hand-held flares over the downwind side of the boat with your arm fully outstretched. Flares burn with extreme heat and can very easily damage your boat, your life raft or people.
  • Point them away from yourself, anyone else and the superstructure of the boat.
  • Flares are extremely bright and you should not look directly at the light as it will damage your eyesight.
  • Parachute flares should be fired downwind at ideally a 15 to 20 degree angle off vertical
  • If you’re in a life raft ensure they are activated outside of the raft and over the side.

Never set flares off unless you are in distress!


Disposal of “out of date” flares

Old or out of date flares should not be kept as spares, because the propellant degrades over time. While an expired flare may still fire, there’s no guarantee and…do you want a flare to fail when you really need it?  Every flare should have a date of manufacture and an expiry date.

Most VMR or Air Sea Rescue bases take old flares and many State maritime organisations such as Maritime Safety Queensland also take old flares.

Never put them in the rubbish or leave them outside for someone to collect as expired flares should be treated as explosives. In fact, expired flares come under the Explosives Act not any maritime act!

Shorlink’s Recommendation

We strongly recommend undertaking one of our Distress Flare training sessions where every participant gets hands on experience in letting a flare off.

We include an introduction to flares and their use along with an outline of actual experiences in emergency situations. This is followed up with all participants activating a distress flare under the guidance of our highly experienced trainer. Contact our office for details on 07 4242 1412.


At all times when using distress flares keep hold of the handle only. Do not allow your fingers to move up on the flare as they generate high heat levels, especially red hand-held flares!

When using RFD red hand-held flares be aware that they have a tube that is pulled out of the holder and must be fully extended prior to activation. Ensure when you pull it out it actually locks in place otherwise it may slide back down into the holder and cause it to burn.