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Seeing the Light

Electronic distress signaling devices are an alternative to pyrotechnic flares
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The ACR Artex ResQFlare can be seen for more than six miles in a 360-degree arc.

The ACR Artex ResQFlare can be seen for more than six miles in a 360-degree arc.

A worst-case scenario for a boater is a rapidly evolving emergency at night that requires you to quickly attract nearby boaters’ attention. One approved Coast Guard method has been to ignite and hold a flare that burns at nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. How hot is that? A crematorium flame reaches about 1,000 degrees, so it’s no surprise that manufacturers suggest wearing a glove while holding a pyrotechnic flare.

There are other downsides to pyrotechnic flares. They are only required to burn for 50 seconds, so the required three-pack yields scant signaling time. They are susceptible to water and physical damage, and they contain hazardous materials such as perchlorate. The slag/ash from a burning flare can melt through an inflatable life raft or burn the holder, and these flares expire in 42 months.

Orion’s SOS Beacon has a one-hand on/off switch; other devices have a twist on/off mechanism that requires two hands.

Orion’s SOS Beacon has a one-hand on/off switch; other devices have a twist on/off mechanism that requires two hands.

In 2018, the Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services developed a new standard for an electronic visual distress signaling device, or “e-flare.” While the Coast Guard does not issue approval certificates for e-flares, a list of 10 self-certified devices may be found on the agency’s CGMIX equipment list. (This self-certification includes being independently tested at a Coast Guard-approved lab.)

The most widely available e-flare models are made by ACR Artex, Sirius Signal/Weems & Plath, and Orion Safety Products. All exceed minimum requirements, and none has an expiration date. These e-flares also come with daytime signaling flags. All the models are waterproof and float upright without a flotation jacket.

ACR Artex makes the ResQFlare ($90). Its high-intensity LED uses a pair of C batteries to produce a white light that continually repeats an SOS signal that can be seen for more than six miles in a 360-degree arc. ResQFlare has an operational life of 20 hours or more, which is three times longer than the nighttime distress signal regulation requires.

Sirius Signal makes two models on the Coast Guard’s list. Its most basic is the C-1003 ($90), which uses three C batteries to power a white LED that Sirius Signal says can flash an SOS signal for up to 60 hours. The C-1003 comes with a daytime signaling flag and a whistle that satisfies a boat’s need for an audio signaling device.

Sirius Signal’s most high-tech model is the C-1002 ($299), which is the only approved device that adds two visible colors (orange/red and cyan blue) against a scattered white light to provide a vivid signaling beacon that is reportedly five times more visible than a white LED signaling device. A third, invisible infrared beam is emitted that allows search and rescue pilots wearing night-vision goggles to home in on the signal. Sirius Signal says the precise sequence of the distress beacon can even allow satellites to identify the location of the boat. Powered by eight CR123 lithium 3V batteries that have a shelf life of up to 10 years, the C-1002 can emit its multicolor SOS signal for up to 8 hours.

Sirius Signal’s C-1002 adds two colors against the standard white LED for enhanced visibility. 

Sirius Signal’s C-1002 adds two colors against the standard white LED for enhanced visibility. 

Buyers of Sirius Signal LED flares also get access to the company’s app, which lets the user file a float plan that’s made available to selected recipients and automatically includes updates of a trip. In an emergency, a one-touch 911 activation will send an emergency message along with the user’s location.

The Orion Safety Products SOS Beacon Locator Kit uses two D batteries to project a white LED SOS signal for up to 50 hours. Like the white-light units, this one produces 75 candelas of illumination brightness. It has a one-hand on/off switch as opposed to other products’ twist on/off mechanism that requires two hands. The SOS Beacon Locator Kit is viewable for three miles, measuring by line of sight.

All electronic flares should be periodically tested and inspected for battery life, and opened to ensure that battery or water leakage hasn’t occurred. 

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Other Signaling Devices

Flare Gun
Advantages: The shells shoot as high as 1,000 feet and are readily recognized as a distress signal. They satisfy day and night signaling requirements.

Disadvantages: In many places, they are classified as firearms and can be dangerous if mishandled. Handheld flares are still required by the Coast Guard, even if a boater has a flare gun.

Orange Smoke SIGNALs
Advantages: Handheld and floating models disperse a wide plume of high-visibility orange smoke that rescuers can easily spot. The high heat signature makes the location highly visible on infrared goggles. These are probably the most effective devices for attracting attention during the daytime.

Disadvantages: Handheld flares are still required, and smoke flares are considered pyrotechnic devices that can burn users. They are for daytime use only.

Signaling Lasers
Advantages: They can be seen for up to 30 miles. The typical pinpoint light of a pointing laser is modified to become a wide beam instead. They can operate continuously for up to 40 hours.

Disadvantages: They are not authorized for use by the Coast Guard. The beam can adversely affect the vision of search-and-rescue pilots. Some lasers can be expensive, and they must be aimed to be effective.

This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.

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