For years, recreational boaters across the country have been “firing off” concerns about the carriage requirements for visual distress signals on their boats. Federal and state agencies saw the flares, and now they’re responding.
Visual distress signals alert search and rescue teams in an emergency. Recognizing their importance in protecting lives, the Coast Guard required vessels in specific conditions to carry approved visual distress signals on U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes, and territorial seas, as well as those waters connected directly (up to where the waterway is less than two nautical miles wide). This requirement is commonly met by pyrotechnic devices, or flares.
The good news is boaters don’t often need a flare. But flares have a lifespan of just 42 months after the date of manufacture, and responsible users monitor life expectancy and toss when that’s reached, leading to a steady dump of out-of-date flares. So flare users from fire departments to recreational boaters are calling for a disposal method for pyrotechnics that is both environmentally friendly and financially feasible. And since pyrotechnics can injure users and bystanders or start a vessel fire and pose other hazards in storage and disposal, safer alternatives to flares are also being investigated.
In 2014, the Coast Guard sponsored Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s study of flare disposal methods. The resulting recommendation was a pilot program using EPA-approved incineration facilities to dispose of expired flares while meeting federal regulations on transportation and storage. Flares could be collected at local marinas, retailers and waste transfer stations, and then transported to disposal facilities for processing.
It’s the classification of expired flares as hazardous materials that makes disposal such a challenge. Options for getting rid of out-of-date flares are limited: donation to law enforcement/training, incineration, recycling, ignition in a safe area, or dismantling, dissolving and neutralizing. All have negatives. Recycling and ignition are risky due to the unpredictability of expired flares (and only hand-held signal flares can be ignited legally in non-emergency situations.) Fire departments and other training agencies aren’t accepting donations; they’ve amassed all the outdated flares they need. Dismantle-dissolve-and-neutralize is costly and would require not only a specialized plant but also strong boater participation. Incineration is just as costly but raises less environmental concern and potential risk.
Choosing incineration, WPI’s recommendation acknowledged a cost, perhaps significant, in the burn facility and the storage and commercial transportation of hazardous materials. But “price is an unavoidable hurdle in any solution,” the recommendation noted. In balance, expired flares already have a “cost,” the study pointed out, citing the millions of dollars spent annually by the Coast Guard and other marine search and rescue agencies on hoax calls resulting from outdated flares shot off as fireworks or fired for disposal. (By law, an aerial flare misused in that manner is a false distress call, a Class D felony.)
Another significant issue is the effectiveness of pyrotechnic flares. In 2011, analysis of search and rescue data for 2003-2010 showed fewer than four percent of SAR notifications came by visual means, and of those, only 17 percent were by pyrotechnics. That constitutes less than one percent of the total. Of the 1,400 or so notifications by flare over eight years, less than 20 percent were successfully resolved. The Coast Guard attributed most of the unresolved false sightings to shore fires, aircraft, celestial events and illegally fired flares.
For these reasons, the Coast Guard’s Office of Search and Rescue requested the Guard’s Research and Development Center to investigate alternatives to pyrotechnic flares. Currently, the only non-pyrotechnic approved for night use is an “electric S-O-S distress light” (46 CFR 161.013). The final outcome from the Guard’s study is pending but the group already noted the better visibility of some of the LED lights tested and recommended they be included in the federal carriage requirements.
Along with the Coast Guard’s studies, improvements to visual distress signals are being considered by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators’ Engineering, Reporting and Analysis Committee, the National Boating Safety Advisory Council and manufacturers. The search goes on because as long as boaters continue to use flares to meet the federal carriage requirements on recreational boats, the problems and the risks will persist.