“They need to see you to get you, and flares don’t do that,” says Jim O’Meara of North American Survival Systems, giving advice on an at-sea rescue. What’s the best way to bring someone to your position?
All seagoing commercial boats and larger pleasure boats are required to carry a type of pyrotechnic distress signal — usually flares. But a flare has a limited life span, about 4 minutes once it’s shot off.
“Three flares onboard makes you legal,” says O’Meara, who operates out of Washington's Bainbridge Island. “Three flares are only good for 12 minutes. Nobody, ever, has been rescued in 12 minutes.”
O’Meara’s company designs and markets electronic flares and strobes to be used in rescue situations. He’s more than a little annoyed with how the Coast Guard downplays the usefulness of electronic flares and strobes.
The Coast Guard refers to them as electronic visual distress signal devices, and in a non-pyrotechnic flares marine information note [MIN 464 (M+F)], O’Meara feels their role is downplayed in a search and rescue situation.
The Coast Guard says it is researching their effectiveness, but they can’t be carried as a substitute for pyrotechnic flares “on vessels to which mandatory carriage applies.”
At the end of the marine information note and almost as an afterthought, it’s written that an “EDVS may be carried and used as a locating device, though their limitations should be recognized.”
Because of the short period a flare is visible, O’Meara says, it is “inherently flawed, but the word has never gotten out that you can have something in addition to a flare.”
When a flare goes off, “you know someone is in trouble over there, but then it goes out, and you’ve got to be able to find them.” Instead of a 4-minute life span, O’Meara says a strobe light is good for “12 hours or better and can be seen from five to 10 miles away. That’s what you want to have to be rescued.” It’s why he calls an electronic flare or strobe a “critical distress signal.”