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Old Flares Breed A Dilemma

By Wayne Spivak / Branch Chief – National Training Department
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

The off-season is here, and you’re begging to get back into the boating season.  While chomping at the proverbial bit, you begin to sort through your boat equipment.  You find your pyrotechnic safety items.  We’re talking about are your flares, your meteors and your orange smokes.

Now, we all know that the life, according to Coast Guard regulations, for pyrotechnic devices is three (3) years from manufacture.  It is also suggested that you should keep the “just” expired flares, smokes and meteors, because while they don’t meet the federal requirements, in all likelihood they probably still work.  “Just” expired means that when your new flares expire, your old flares will have been onboard for six years.

Let’s focus on flares for the moment, but the following generalizations are also true for all pyrothecnics.  The federal minimum requirements for flares are three.  Should you ever need to ignite them, and you’ve decided that you only want to meet the minimum federal standards of three flares; you’ll find that a single flare’s life isn’t very long.

Should you fire off your flare at an inopportune moment, then you’ve wasted what is probably 33% of your chances of being located by a passing ship or plane.  A very sobering thought!

If you keep your older (just expired) flares on the boat, and attempt to light these off first, then if they do work, you’ve increased your number of flares by a factor of two.  If they don’t, well nothing ventured is nothing gained.

But what do we do about the second generation (older than 6 years) of retired flares?  The question you need to ask yourself is; “Do I think they will ignite?”  If you don’t feel confident with keeping these second generation retired flares, then you will need to dispose of them, safely and legally.

Pyrotechnic Disposal

You have two choices when considering disposal of flares and other pyrotechnical equipment.

1. (Preferred method):  Contact your local fire department, sanitation department or environmental protection department and determine your local hazardous waste material disposal rules.  Then follow the rules.

2. Contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary and/or United States Power Squadron unit and see if they would like to have some old flares for training purposes.   The Auxiliary and the Power Squadron teach boating courses year-round, and many of them sponsor (after receiving permission from the Coast Guard) pyrotechnic training days for the public.

The Auxiliary has many more of these days for their members, since those members who want to qualify in the Boat Crew and Coxswain on-the-water missions need to understand and know how to use flares and other pyrotechnical devices.

Actually learning how to use pyrothecnics is a very important experience.  Knowing how to ignite them, seeing how they burn, and how the slag drops can make a big difference.  Pyrotechnics are dangerous!  A good reason to take a safe boating course and a better reason for possibly joining the Auxiliary!

However, there is a limit to both the Auxiliary and the Power Squadron’s need for flares, and other pyrotechnic devices.  Both organizations could not possibly use all the manufactured devices that have fallen way outside the Coast Guard legal standards and practical useful lives of these devices.

To learn more about what to do during a boating emergency, why not take a boating safety course!  The United States Coast Guard Auxiliary has a variety of boating courses geared for all levels of boating knowledge.  You can contact your local Auxiliary Flotilla by either calling your local Coast Guard unit or visiting the Coast Guard on the web at or the Coast Guard Auxiliary at


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