Pyrotechnics or Electronics for Emergency / Distress Signalling?

I originally wrote a shorter version of this on a Facebook group but it could be of interest here. 

Clearly their carriage, or not, has to be a personal decision so this is not a recommendation but a personal view and is dependant on what alternative systems are carried, also if coastal or offshore racing, taking part in many events (but not a Jester Challenge👍), or if there is any commercial implication such as sail training, pyrotechnic flares must still be carried.

The RYA are trying to get the mandatory carriage of pyrotechnic flares on boats larger than 45ft removed, so you can see where they are coming from.

The down side of flares are generally considered, in no particular order, to be:

  • Difficulty and cost of disposal every 3 years.
  • Cost, an offshore pack is between £200 and £250 depending on make and only contains 4 parachute flares, 4 hand flares and a couple of smoke floats.
  • Danger of having pyrotechnics on board and risk when used. 
The biggest operational downside in my view is the short time of active use,  Flares expire in 3 years and burn for:
  • Parachute Flare: 40 seconds, in good visibility with no low cloud they can be seen for up to 30 miles.
  • 2 Star Red Aerial Distress Flare, visibility up to 6 or 7 miles, burns for 5.5 seconds.
  • Hand Flare: Burns for 1 minute. 
  • Hand Smoke: Burns for 1 minute.
  • Smoke Float: Burns for 2-3 minutes depending on make.
And it is often recommended that parachute or other high level flares should be used in pairs, the first to get attention and the second for the observer to get a bearing and / or to confirm what they saw, on that basis a £200 pack gives you two shots with parachute flares.

Compared that to :
  • A PLB has infinite range to multiple emergency centres plus a few miles range for homing on VHF and it runs for > 35 hours. Replaceable battery shelf life >= 6 years.
  • An EPIRB is similar to the PLB but runs for at least 48 hours at -20 degrees C and more typically for up to 95 hours. Replaceable battery shelf life of 10 years.
  • The AIS SART in my life jacket broadcasts an AIS and DSC emergency signal with GPS position for >= 24 hours, range depends on several factors but will typically be several miles. Replaceable battery shelf life is 7 years on mine.
  • The Ocean Signal EDF1 LED flare is waterproof to 10 metres, is visible for up to 7 miles and one battery (replaceable @£27 each with a 10 year shelf life) will keep it flashing for at least 6 hours.
Many people keep their flares past there expiry date, I have a coastal pack like that I'll probably keep on board for a year but they do not count if there is a requirement to carry flares and if you go into French waters and they are found during an inspection (which happens fairly frequently) there is a fine for any out of date safety equipment, even if you are not required to carry the item!

One of my "Grab bags", the other really is a bag that can have
items such as the EPIRB, rations and water put in at the last minute.
A couple of legacy parachute flares are at the top due to expire Oct
2021. An Ocean Signal LED "Flare" to the right. Under that is
a traditional strobe and a spare battery pack for the hand held
VHF. Under the white cover is a selected part of my first aid kit.

I am phasing hand flares out except for the ones in the life raft's ISO pack. They have been displaced by some hit-tech beacons (below) and a made for purpose LED "flare", mine is an Ocean Signal EDF1 but several companies are now making them and although £95 I think are a better replacement then generic LED lights. 

Doubts have been raised on line about people recognising an LED flare as an indicator of distress, the Ocean Signal device at least, can be set to flash SOS in Morse code ( . . . _ _ _ . . . ) that should get any sea farers attention, and that of many other people!

Emergency equipment ready to grab just inside the main hatch.
The hand held DSC/GPS VHF radio is in a cradle wired to the
boats supply so it is charged whenever the main VHF is switched
on. The EPIRB (yellow), knife in its sheath  and LED pen torches
and a head band LED light in the wooden box. The back of the
externally mounted VHF is left exposed for ventilation and for
easy access to the aerial socket to attach the emergency aerial.

I thought of keeping a couple of smokes but rescue helicopters carry their own (but would rarely need them at sea) and although they make a good daylight marker  2 or 3 of those cost as much as a spare LED flare so I probably will not. I do not intend to replace the two parachute flares shown above when they expire at the end of 2021 (again there are a couple in the life raft pack and will be replaced at each life raft service).  I have plenty of good alternates:
  • Fixed and hand held VHFs both with DSC & GPS so they transmit emergency signals with position, the hand held at 6 Watts has a range of a few miles, the fixed at 25 Watts up to c25 miles if the masthead antenna is still available (usually more to the Coastguard who have their antenna high up), otherwise less.
  • An EPIRB and legacy PLB both with GPS and a SOS / homing signal on the aviation emergency frequency (121.5MHz) which might get heard by commercial or military traffic. Lifeboats can home in on UHF signal from both and probably the VHF 121.5 signal (they certainly used to be able to but I don't have up to date information)
  • Although I sail solo I also have a life jacket mounted AIS + DSC & GPS man overboard SART which should be useful for the final approach of a rescuer, in crowded waters and when in the dinghy, where I suspect I am in more danger than when at sea.
A PLB is small enough to carry in a pocket, on a
lanyard round the neck or attached to a harness
or life jacket.
I started off with a PLB rather than an EPIRB as being adequate for coastal waters, but upgraded to the EPIRB when I decided to do the subsequently cancelled 2020 Jester Azores Challenge which is why I have both.

The IridiumGo activated on longer trips gives an emergency signal with position to a third party emergency centre and supports email, SMS and voice in conjunction with an iPad, smart phone or PC.

There is also the mobile phone and an iPad with GSM on a different provider if one of them has a signal.

I don't think flares, working for such a short time, would add much. With standard offshore pack costing at least £200 every 3 years that goes a long way towards what in my view is the better, longer lived solution.

If flares could be phased out it would also save a lot of false alarms, the lifeboats on the south coast are frequently called out to false alarms. A couple of years ago I got involved in one in the middle of Lyme Bay, I'm fairly sure that was a low flying Helicopter seen through the fog banks but many false alarms are difficult to explain and may be people letting of expired flares 🤬

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