Thanet RNLI Community Safety

Flares Are Not Fireworks – New Years Eve Is Not The Time For Firing Off Maritime Flares

Every New Years Eve, sadly Coastguard Rescue Teams and RNLI lifeboat crews are called out unnecessarily after people set off flares rather than fireworks.  Flares are to request immediate assistance when someone is in grave and imminent danger at sea.

If the UK Coastguard receives an alert at or near the coast where a flare has been launched, it will always respond and won’t know the difference if they are being used as fireworks.  This would put search and rescue teams at heightened unnecessary risk particularly during COVID-19  pandemic and potentially diverting from a legitimate emergency.

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Examples of maritime flares
What do you do if you spot a flare that has been fired?
If you do see a flare, or think you have, you should call ‘999’ and ask for the COASTGUARD immediately giving as an accurate location as possible using a landmark, grid reference or using what2words.
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What is the difference between flares and fireworks?

Flares are typically red or orange and don’t last long – they are an internationally recognised distress signal.

Fireworks are typically colourful and often accompanied by a sound, leaving a smoke trail.

How do I dispose of time expired flares or pyrotechnic’s?

Firing off time expired flares or pyrotechnic’s is illegal and you could be prosecuted. It is illegal to fire them on land or on a harbour, fire them off at sea for training, testing or as fireworks; dump flares at sea or on land; and damaged and or out of date flares should not be used.  Flares  should be disposed of safely and as soon as possible.

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Discarded time expired pyrotechnics. Photo credit: Adrossan CG Rescue Team

Only contact the HM Coastguard when all other means of disposal have been exhausted:

  • Speak with the place you purchased them from. They may offer a ‘take back’ scheme (a small charge may apply)
  • Life raft service stations (some offer a service)
  • The local authority.  They maybe accepted at local recycling centres, but you will need to contact them prior to attending or sending them
  • If you are still unable to dispose of flares then you can contact your nearest HM Coastguard licensed site.  For further details go to our blog which gives further details


Thank you for reading and from all of our team we would like to wish to a safe and enjoyable New Year.


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Do you know who to call for a coastal emergency?
HM Coastguard Officers dressed in water rescue kit during a multi-agency exercise Photo credit: Margate Coastguard Team

Whilst our team are out and about at community events, presentations or conducting pop-up beach safety chats over half the people we speak to don’t know to call the Coastguard for any coastal emergency via ‘999’ or ‘112’ (European emergency number).  Contacting another emergency service for a coastal emergency could result in vital minutes being lost in tasking a lifeboat to be launched, Coastguard Rescue Officers with specialist skills and equipment mobilised to the scene or a helicopter on it’s way.

Coastguard Helicoper – photo credit Dawn Kandekore

The Coastguard (MCA) have Operations Centre’s (CGOC’s) dotted across the UK, at Aberdeen, Belfast, Dover,  Falmouth, Holyhead, Humber, London, Milford Haven, Shetland, Stornaway and the National Maritime Operations Centre at Fareham. Each is staffed 24/7 and answers ‘999’ calls from members of the public and Mayday distress calls via radio.

In the event of an emergency at the coast, they will co-ordinate the tasking of search and rescue assets eg RNLI boats, independent lifeboats, Coastguard Rescue teams who also trained in mud and cliff rescue, advanced first aid, advanced missing person search; and of course search and rescue helicopters.

HM Coastguard Rescue Officers undertaking a mud rescue exercise – photo credit Greenock CG

Some people are also not aware that the HM Coastguard is a totally separate organisation from that of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and they are often confused for the same organisation.  Whereas the RNLI is totally funded by voluntary donations, the HM Coastguard is a government agency under the control of the Department for Transport and undertakes a different role.

Pictured – Coastguard overalls, with lifejacket, worn with helmet, goggles and protective boots Photo credit: Greenock CG Team

Coastguard Rescue Officers (CRO) are all volunteers and are on-call 24/7 available to answer the emergency call no matter what time of day they are required or whatever they are doing.

One of the other questions that our team are asked at events “who should we call if should come across a time expired pyrotechnic or washed up military ordnance on the beach?”  Our answer is “always dial ‘999’ or ‘112’ and ask for the Coastguard”. They will task the nearest Coastguard Rescue Team (CRT) to investigate and if required will request an Army or Royal Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team to make safe any military ordnance. Find out more on what to do if you come across military ordnance or time expired pyrotechnic’s at the coast

The above picture shows a CRO in front using a wading pole to check for hidden dangers. They will alert their team behind them of anything that they need to be aware of. The formation is called a ‘wedge’, it can also be used in flood/shallow water. As soon as the smallest member of the formation begins to float, the team will not go any deeper. Picture Credit: Greenock Coastguard Team.

Coastguard Officers about to undertake a cliff rescue exercise Photo credit: Margate Coastguard Team

Coastguard Teams are sometimes called to undertake cliff rescue’s a skill which they practise regularly to keep their knowledge and skills fresh.

More useful links:

How to dispose of out-of-date flares

Herne Bay Coastguard Team are recruiting – find out more

Kent Coastguard Rescue Officers mount marathon cycle ride

Margate Coastguard Team Facebook