Pyrotechnics – Ensuring Maritime Rescue in Emergencies

On the terrible night of October 2, 2015, as a small ship was caught in the eye of the hurricane Joaquin, a Coast Guard helicopter took to the air to save the 12 men aboard the Minouche. Somewhere off the coast of the Great Inagua Island, in pitch-black darkness and raging 30-feet waves, their only hope of detecting the vessel was through the emergency flares the ship’s crew had launched before abandoning ship, pinpointing their location. The rescue operation took over 14 hours as the Coast Guard fought against everything nature threw before them and rescued the sailors to safety.

For over a hundred years, pyrotechnics have been an indivisible part of marine safety, providing valuable assistance in times of emergencies and rescue. In case of extreme situations, such as the sinking of a ship, these signals and flares are used to attract the attention of other vessels passing by or help on the mainland.

Lately, people are being urged to stay equipped with pyrotechnics at sea, be it a boat or individual adventurists. Unfortunate events wherein one’s own vessel is beyond saving, pyrotechnics can be one of the most important resorts for the personnel’s survival and rescue out at sea.

Let’s now talk about the concept of pyrotechnics, their need and importance at sea, their pedestal in the maritime industry and the right way to dispose of them.


What are Pyrotechnics?

Pyrotechnics are defined as ‘the science of using materials capable of undergoing self-contained and self-sustained exothermic chemical reactions for the production of light, heat, gas, smoke, and/or sound.’

Simply put, pyrotechnics are a visual aid to send an SOS signal in case of an emergency at sea. Despite advanced tracking and location systems used on ships today, pyrotechnics still have an important role to play.

Seafarers, vessel manufacturers, and ship/boat owners are responsible for ensuring that the appropriate pyrotechnics equipment are availed on board at all times and the crew is trained to locate and use them efficiently, should the need to do so arise.

Post the Titanic disaster, the SOLAS treaty has also stipulated the minimum type and quantity of pyrotechnics to be carried onboard the vessel. In addition, maritime nations have their own additional requirements as well, which are made mandatory for marine ship and personnel safety.

Types of Pyrotechnics

The type and number of pyrotechnics used differs as per the size of the vessel and the application for which it is used. Some of these are mentioned as follows:

  • Red Hand Flares

Hand flares are self-ignitable handheld distress signals that burn uniformly with a bright red colour for at least one minute. They are water-resistant to an extent of 10 seconds in shallow depths of up to 100 mm. The hand flares are useful in pinpointing the exact location of the craft and should be lighted when rescue is within sight.

Hand flare should be typically held downwind while lighting it and away from the face and clothing. Under no circumstances should they be stored near combustible material, even after usage.


Figure 1:Red-Hand Flares

  • Rocket Parachute Flares

Rocket parachute flares are designed to reach a height of at least 300-350m when fired vertically, burning with a bright red light indicating the vessel’s location. The parachute attached to the flare opens at the top, slowing the flare’s descent so that it is visible for a longer time. The self-ignitable design of the rocket parachute flare is expected to be such that the parachute does not catch fire under any circumstances and has a maximum descent rate of 5mtr/sec.


Figure 2:Parachute Rocket

  • Line-Throwing Appliances

Line-throwing appliances, or bridges, are used to connect the ship in distress to the rescue ship creating a safety link between the two. These lines can be then used to pass towing lines or other safety equipment as required.

Line-throwing appliances are expected to be able to carry the line for at least 230 mts in calm weather and have at least four projectiles.

Figure 3:Line thrower

  • Buoyant Smoke Signals

Smoke signals are red or orange in colour and can function up to 15 minutes in calm conditions. They do not emit flames of any sort or spark in the hands of the holder. These signals are also used to pinpoint the direction and location of the vessel unless the weather conditions are not supported.

Figure 4:Buoyant Smoke

  • Man Overboard Signal Smoke Markers (MOBs)

MOBs are used to mark the position of a man overboard by day or night. Ships are required to carry 2 markers, one mounted on each bridge wing with the brackets supplied and attached by a line to a 4 kg Lifebuoy.

Apart from these, modern pyrotechnics include laser flares, navigation and distress lights, which are used to home in on the location of the ship needing rescue. Carriage of SOLAS-approved pyrotechnics equipment is mandatory on ships and vessels; their quantity differs as per the type of ship and application.

Man_overboard_light & smoke

Figure 5:Man-overboard Light & Smoke

Once pyrotechnics are used, they should not be thrown into the open sea due to their hazardous nature; as a matter of fact, it is illegal to do so. The disposal of pyrotechnics follows a defined procedure, which ensures that all waste is disposed of efficiently, without any environmental damage.

Disposal of Pyrotechnics

Marine distress signals have a shelf life of 3 years and need to be replaced immediately after the date of expiry. The disposal of pyrotechnics is necessary to avoid misuse by fraudulent tampering of the expiry date and for safety and environmental considerations.

Out-of-date pyrotechnics have to be taken to authorised disposal centres once the ship lands ashore at the soonest possible instance post the expiry date. Given that the lives of seafarers depend on pyrotechnics, they need to be regularly checked for validity and replaced as necessary.

Even today, there are a lot of instances of fraudulent usage of expired pyrotechnics by tampering with the date of expiry. To bring this situation under control, the Directorate General of Shipping, Govt. of India,  has issued a circular in 2015, cracking down on the purveyors of such tampered distress signals. Stricter rules for pyrotechnics disposal have been implemented, with shipping companies, marine distress signal manufacturers, and ship service stations being called to account for their means of disposal.

The conclusion is that the lack of a centralized disposal facility leads to people disposing of pyrotechnics as and when convenient, with absolutely no regard for the environmental damage caused. SHM’s PESO-approved pyrotechnics disposal facility at Visakhapatnam provides a solution to this problem.

We talked to our chairman, Mr. Saifuddin Hajee, regarding the company’s take on pyrotechnics disposal.

SHM Shipcare has always strived to create a safe and secure working environment that enables business freedom on land and at sea. The company partners with its customers to increase their productivity, fuel their sustainable growth by providing the most reliable safety products and engineering solutions, and have a positive impact on the world and on people’s lives. To fulfil this social responsibility, the company started a pyrotechnics disposal centre at Visakhapatnam.” – Mr Saifuddin Hajee, Chairman, SHM Shipcare

SHM Shipcare is the leading pyrotechnics disposal company in India, with 10 collection centres across the length and breadth of India and a disposal facility at Visakhapatnam.

Figure 5:SHM Pyrotechnics Disposal  facility at Visakhapatnam

The facility, approved by the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization (PESO), diligently exterminates out-of-date pyrotechnics in line with SHM’s vision of upholding the highest standards of marine and environment safety.

The road for pyrotechnic disposal is not always smooth though. At present, some of the major challenges in the disposal of marine distress signals are:

  • Ensuring all expired pyrotechnics are finding their way to safe disposal facilities
  • Collection and transportation of expired marine distress signals
  • Compliance by various manufacturers, ship owners, and service providers
  • Safe disposal of signals consistent with environmental regulations


Pyrotechnics have been instrumental in saving countless lives at sea. Nevertheless, appropriate care must be taken to ensure that they are used judiciously and are disposed off safely. Vessel owners and manufacturers in India have always worked to create a secure environment for seafarers at all times, making provision of dated pyrotechnics a top priority for safeguarding the lives of seafarers in times of emergencies at sea.

Although their presence is important, the disposal of pyrotechnics should also be carefully attended to. Often, expired marine distress signals are incautiously thrown away like regular trash, making them environmental hazards. Seafarers shall understand the importance of clean seas while ship service stations shall ensure that every expired pyrotechnics equipment is disposed only at a government-approved facility.  

The timely disposal of marine distress signals is a must to prevent any misuse which may jeopardize life at sea. It is the responsibility of everybody in the maritime community to understand the seriousness of this fact and take the necessary steps for efficient pyrotechnic disposal.

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