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When is it legal to test a flare?

is it legal to use a flare

When it comes to safety, it’s always better not to have to use equipment and devices meant to signal distress or emergency. After all, if you don’t need to use them, it’s because you’re not in trouble. The same idea applies to the use of flares.

In this article, we’ll tackle rules and laws related to the use and testing of flares. You’ll know when it is safe and legal to use a flare, and when it is not. We’ll also provide guidelines on how to use a flare and what to do if you spot a flare distress signal. Read on!

What are Flares?

Flares are pyrotechnic visual distress devices used to signal distress to nearby boats and people to let them know you require assistance. They’re tubes packed with chemicals that explode and burn, which make them great for attracting attention in times of emergency. They come in different forms and colors, and each serves a different purpose.

Handheld Flares

Handheld flares may either be signal flares or smoke flares. Signal flares burn with bright red lights as you hold them, while smoke flares can be handheld, placed on the ground, or dropped overboard to give off huge colored smokes. They don’t give off light, so they’re useful mostly during the day. They’re visible up to 5 kilometers away from 30 seconds to several minutes.

Rocket Flares

Rocket flares can work in the day or night. They’re fired in the air so they can be seen at a much farther distance than handheld flares. They can be like fireworks, where you strike an explosive cap to propel the inner part of the flare into the air. While airborne, the flare ignites and explodes with intense red or orange lights.

Rocket flares can also be fired with a flare gun, which shoots flares rapidly at about 300 meters. They explode mid-air with a loud bang and release a burning flare, which can be suspended from a small parachute to maximize the time it can be seen by onlookers.

The Meaning of Colors

Flares are also color-coded. Red and orange flares indicate distress or that an emergency is happening. If you see it, you must take action.

Meanwhile, flares can also be white, and they don’t usually indicate distress or an ongoing emergency. Instead, they’re used to illuminate an area at night. This helps people on the boat to see better in case no other light source is available near water. At the same time, they prevent imminent collisions with other boats by indicating the ship’s position.

Laws Regulating the Use of Flares

Around the world, it is illegal to use or test a flare, regardless of its kind, unless there is a real emergency.

All flares and pyrotechnic distress signals must receive approval from Transport Canada in Canada or Coast Guard in the US. They’re only valid for four years from the manufacture date. Since they involve explosive and combustible chemicals, they should be used with caution and out of children’s reach.

As such, it’s illegal to test or discharge a flare if not to signal actual distress or danger. You should also dispose of flares in an approved manner.

The same is true in the UK, where it is an offense to:

  • Fire flares on land or in a harbor
  • Fire flares at sea for testing, practice, or as fireworks
  • Dump pyrotechnics at sea

It’s also an offense to use damaged or expired flares, which should be disposed of safely and immediately.

In Australia, boats are required to carry two of each kind of flare (orange and red flares), and everyone on board should be able to easily find and ignite the correct flare when necessary. It’s generally recommended to store the flares in an accessible and waterproof container.

What to remember when using a flare?

If and when you have to use a flare to signal distress, you must know how to properly use it. The following are some reminders when using a flare:

  • Face downwind: light or fire the flare at the edge of the boat and put your back to the wind.
  • Read instructions: different flare manufacturers may put special instructions to make the best use of flares, so read them carefully. Check the illustrations and understand how they work. Never assume that you know how all flares work.
  • Wear eye protection: flares are bright and burning, and if the wind changes direction, you may hurt your eyes or injure them.
  • Aim carefully: that is, never aim the flare at another person — simply aim it skywards if you’re signaling distress. When using a flare gun, use your dominant hand. If using a handheld flare, use your non-dominant hand. And since handheld flares drip and melt, slant your wrist a bit you won’t burn your hands.
  • Look away before firing: shift your eyes away before firing a flare to further protect your eyes.
  • Dispose of misfires: misfires happen so expect them. If a handheld flare or a flare gun shell fails to ignite, don’t try to light it up or fire again. Drop the flare or shell casing into a bucket of water immediately.

What to do when you see a flare signal?

When you see a flare distress signal, it is expected of you to take positive and immediate action. In other words, it’s an unwritten law to do something to help those in distress. Here’s what you can do:

  • Notify the nearest authorities or Coast Guard distress channels or stations.
  • Contact the first available distress channel.
  • If you can assist those in need without endangering yourself, do so with caution.


To provide effective help if you see a flare signal, take note of the following:

  • The color of the flare
  • The number of flares
  • The interval between each flare appearance
  • The type of flare
  • The direction of the flare from you
  • The weather
  • Your overall ability to assist
  • Your position relative to the flare source


By providing such information, you’ll also help the Coast Guard or other authorities to take action and resolve the situation.

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