P.S. Don't Play With Fire

Flare Safety And Best Practices
Publish date:
When you set off a flare, don't look at at the flame and be sure to hold it away from your vessel.

When you set off a flare, don't look at at the flame and be sure to hold it away from your vessel.

Last week, after writing 5 Things You Should Know About Flares, a friend of mine, Andy Chase of the Maine Maritime Academy, reminded me that I left out some details relating to flare safety. I like to think that I know my stuff, but when a guy with forty-plus years of professional sailing experience critiques your work, you pay attention.

Andy and I discussed that not all flares are created equal and a flare that expired yesterday is not the same thing as a flare that expired 15 years ago. I don’t want anyone to be unsafe while trying to be safer, so I apologize and offer below some important caveats to flares (expired or not) for their use, storage and inspection.

1. Always do whatever the flare manufacturer suggests. At present, there are only two manufacturers of USCG Approved Flares— and they disagree on what to do with their expired flares. Orion recommends firing off expired flares as a way of disposing of them, implying that it is safe to do so. Drew Marine Signal & Safety, advises against firing expired flares. However, finding guidance on what happens to flares over time is difficult (or impossible) to locate. Certainly, a flare one day past its expiration date is different from a 20-year-out-of-date pyrotechnic, so further caution is in order:

2. You should inspect all of your flares — new or old — often. If they are damaged, leaking, anything — cracked, dented or otherwise not looking new — you should get rid of them. Don’t fire them off. Take them to your local household hazardous waste collection point. Where I live, that is a once-a-month drop off location where they take everything from used oil to old gasoline to old flares.

3. Remember that lighting a handheld or hand-launched flare is just like holding onto fire or an explosive device and that you have to be careful about that. Modern flares produce between 10,000 and 30,000 candelas. A very bright LED Flashlight is 2,500 lumens. A 30,000-candela flare is 150 times brighter. Looking at the flame is a very bad idea and holding a flare in your bare hand also is a bad idea. Wearing leather gloves, safety goggles and looking away from the flame are all good ideas.

4. Many parachute or rocket flares are of the “Twist and Pop” variety. You simply twist the base to unlock, then strike the base to launch the flare (holding it over your head and away). You don’t need to practice that so much as you need to know — and all of your crew needs to know — the method for launching the flare without relying on the instructions during an emergency.

I want you to be safe out there, but I want you to be safe while being safe out there. Don’t play with fire.