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Signaling for Help on the Water

Knowing the proper way to signal for help can make all the difference during an emergency.
Boating Safety

Proper Use of Pyrotechnic Devices
To use pyrotechnic devices in an emergency situation, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. In fact, it’s a good idea to read the operating instructions before you actually need to use the device. Remember:

•    Hold lit flares away from the body and over the gunwale downwind; the flames are very hot and ash and slag can burn skin.
•    Never discharge flares near a fuel tank, upwind, or in close proximity to another person.
•    Never discharge flares if fuel fumes are detected.
•    Hold a smoke signal over the gunwale downwind, to avoid having the smoke blow back in your face.

•    Only use flares that are certified for marine use (and only those that are Coast Guard-approved will satisfy Federal requirements).  Road flares are much more likely to start a fire on a boat than those specifically made for maritime use.

•    Check the expiration date. Expired signals may be carried as extra equipment, but cannot be counted toward meeting the Visual Distress Signal requirement, since they may be unreliable.

•    Never set off any VDS just for fun. Sending any type of false distress is a federal offense. Curious boaters who want to see pyrotechnic distress signals in use should contact their local Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla or U. S. Power Squadrons.  These organizations conduct periodic pyrotechnic demonstrations.

If you need to dispose of unwanted or expired pyrotechnic devices, don’t toss them into the trash where they might ignite or cause other disposal problems. Instead, contact the local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary flotilla or U.S. Power Squadrons and ask if they could use them for boating safety training.  You can also call the local fire department or town hazmat unit for instructions on proper disposal.

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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit

May 5, 2012

I am a U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor, and Public Affairs Officer. I conduct annual "Vessel Safety Day" within my AOR, where we demonstrate all the different VDS, and afterwards allow the participants (after signing a waiver) to fire off their own VDS under our supervision. If any Flotilla wants more info, contact me @

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