Salisbury harbormaster: Practice with flares, the best and worst of training

Ray Pike

Have you ever been on a boat and needed a flare for an emergency? Did you know that there are different kinds of flares for different purposes? Have you ever wondered about what happens to unused flares that boaters have on their boats for emergency purposes? Can they be recycled? Brought to transfer stations? Well, after a safe boating season, expired flares have to be disposed of in a way that is not harmful to the boaters – or to the public. Old emergency flares are difficult to dispose of because of their dangerous chemicals that burn so hot and brightly. One way to handle this situation is to have a controlled shoot-off, where the flares can be shot off in a training exercise. This not only takes care of the safe disposal, but it also gives boaters experience with the handling of the flares. Sounds like a win-win situation, doesn’t it?

There is a need for knowledge about the use and disposal of emergency flares, and harbormasters know that training is essential, so we try to provide that training regularly. Our fourth or fifth end of season flare shoot-off exercise took place as scheduled on Saturday, Nov. 16, in the parking lot near the Ring’s Island town pier. It was the best of training and the worst of training.

First, the worst! Despite the best of intentions, two of the flares crossed the river and landed on the Newburyport waterfront. As they burned out the Newburyport Fire Department was called out to monitor them. One flare crossed because one of our boaters tested a Weems-Plath high-altitude parachute flare and aimed it too low. And when a second Weems-Plath parachute flare was a dud, I set it down on the granite leaving it until the end of training.

But when it was picked up, it suddenly and unexpectedly launched horizontally toward Newburyport. Although they did not cause any damage, it is my responsibility to provide safeguards that prevent these mistakes, and I will ensure that these mistakes are never repeated. I wish to thank the fire department for its quick response and apologize for any inconvenience that occurred.

One obvious problem was a lack of an inventory of our total supply and variety of flares. We didn’t have a good count of how many were hand-held, and how many were launchers long and short range. That was a problem when boaters were allowed to select from our total pile.

So from the worst to the best! We learned many important lessons from this experience, ones that will help keep our harbor and boaters safer. I, as Harbor Master, will need to provide better support and guidance for the boaters, many of whom are shooting off flares for the first time. We will also teach our boaters as to which flares are the safest to use and where to aim them. We will also separate the flares into categories. The orange smoke flares are intended for day use and will only be used in daytime testing. The long-range flares will be taken out of our inventory if we ever conduct training at the Salisbury town pier. As a result, we will make sure that those mistakes are not made in future training events.

There was a very positive side to the shoot-off. The best part came from comments from the boaters. “I’ve never done this before, thank you.” Comments came from very young boaters and from an experienced fisherman. We also heard, “Wow, we were carrying a lot of duds.”

A favorite comment started with a simple question, “How do these work? I can’t see the directions. I guess I should practice reading in daylight!” Yes, as you can see, our practice is at night, for two reasons: first to experience the difficulty in making them work, and second to witness the effectiveness, the brightness, and the failure rates of different types of flares.

One policy change we will implement is that we will not become a drop off center for expired flares. Future flare training policy will be “bring your flares, and stay for the training with us.” But a strong recommendation will be for boaters to keep spare flares that may have expired. While you must always have current flares (within the 36 – 42 month life-cycle of new flares), you are allowed to carry older flares, provided there is no visible deterioration. The spares can be tested early during an emergency, and will allow you to keep an adequate supply of current flares when rescue personnel have been sighted, enabling them to locate you more quickly.

The benefits of the training can always be enhanced with a thorough review of the training process and obtaining inputs from all the parties involved.

We have begun a review and will share our results with all our partners before we schedule any further flare shoot off training exercises.

Ray Pike is the Salisbury harbormaster and writes an occasional guest column.

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