Safety Kit: Laser Flares The Future in Marine Signalling?

By GUY REEVE

These days it seems that the sea kayaker’s Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is rapidly becoming a repository for so much safety gear that the word ‘flotation’ should surely be replaced by something else.

Depending on location, a well-prepared sea kayaker carries at a minimum a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB, similar to an EPIRB, but smaller and able to be fitted into a PFD pocket), a hand-held marine VHF radio, a mobile phone (appropriately waterproofed), and pyrotechnic distress flares, as well as a strobe light, signal mirror and perhaps sea marker dye. It’s little wonder that as a result there’s not very much ‘F’ in ‘PFD’ any more. So anything we can do to reduce the bulk and weight of equipment carried in the PFD must be a good thing.

Among the most bulky items are distress flares. Before the advent of the PLB and VHF radios, pyrotechnic distress flares used to be the only practical device available to the kayaker to summon assistance in case of emergency at sea. They are still routinely carried by many sea kayakers, mostly as a sensible precaution rather than in compliance with any regulatory requirement. The NSW Maritime Boating Handbook (2011-12) exempts canoes and kayaks from carrying the same safety equipment as boaters on open waters, including the otherwise mandatory distress flares.

Limitations of Pyrotechnic Distress Flares

Regardless of whether or not they are legally required to be carried, distress flares are still an essential adjunct to use of a PLB, VHF etc. A PLB or VHF will get rescuers to the approximate location, but a visual signal of some sort is essential for attracting the attention of search and rescue aircraft or vessels to your precise location, the concept of ‘the final mile’.

Simply alerting a Search and Rescue agency by PLB, EPIRB, VHF and/or DSC (Digital Selective Calling) may not be enough: the rescuers also need to be able to locate you.

Rescue aircrew may not be able to see their search target even when the aircraft is virtually overhead and in good weather conditions. In white-capping seas on an overcast day or in low light, SAR crews are unlikely to be able to spot their target without some form of position marking. Distress flares, a strobe and/or sea marker dye are essential under these sorts of conditions. Other technologies for this ‘final mile’ location are still emerging, and for the time being flares are, in the eyes of official agencies, the most effective solution for pinpointing a vessel in distress.

But pyrotechnics have their limitations: with burn times of around 60 seconds each, they are very short-lived, as well as being quite bulky, potentially dangerous (they are Class 1 explosives) and needing to be replaced every three years.

Flare and particularly hand smoke performance can also be degraded by wind and weather. Hand smokes are not much good at night or in more than 10kts of wind (the smoke will be dissipated too quickly to be an effective visual signal). Operating smoke and flares in rough conditions is both a great challenge and potential hazard to the operator. One yachting forum has an extremely long thread discussing accidents with hand held flares and the need to use welding gloves when operating them!

An Alternative: the Laser Flare

Enter the laser flare: a small, safe and long-lasting alternative to the hand-held pyrotechnic red distress flare.

There are currently two variants available;
1) the directional laser flare made by Greatland Laser in the US; and
2) the ‘omnidirectional’ laser flare, a recent innovation by OdeoFlare in the UK

Rescue Laser Light

Greatland Laser make several laser flare products, but the Rescue Laser Light is perhaps of most interest to the kayaker given its exceptionally small size and reliability. It is about 80mm long and 20mm in diameter and weighs about 100g. It is waterproof to 24m and of very robust aluminium construction, but it does not float.

The Rescue Laser Light is available in both red and green laser lights. To ensure it will be seen by the target, the Rescue Laser Light projects a wide flat beam of laser light, rather than the concentrated point of light produced by a conventional laser pointer. Accurate use, however, requires two hands, one hand to act as sight by bracketing the target (e.g. a helicopter or vessel) with two fingers, and the other to hold and aim the flare. You will see the line of the beam on your fingers and it is a simple matter of slowly scanning the beam of light up and down so it crosses the target.

The recipient of the signal will see bright flashes, as the beam crosses their line of sight, rather than a continuous bright light. The effect is similar to that of a signal mirror in sunlight. Except that it works in the dark as well as daytime.

But apart from its very small size and corrosion-resistance, the greatest advantage of this device is that provides 40 hours continuous signalling on one battery. That’s a whole lot more than the 2-4 minutes of signalling available from the ‘2 smokes, 2 hand held distress flares’ pack.

Does it work?

The manufacturer claims that, under ideal conditions, the laser flare will be visible from 32km at night and 5km in daylight.

But how good is the Rescue Laser Light in practice?

A red Rescue Laser Light was tested during the search and rescue exercise held at the 2012 Rock ‘n’ Roll, during which a group of paddlers used a range of signalling devices to attract the attention of a real live rescue helicopter.

Julian Holder, the pilot of Rescue 26, the NSW Ambulance Service rescue helicopter which participated in the exercise, has provided a detailed write up of the various signalling methods tested. His report is available on the club website.

In summary, Julian’s assessment was that the Rescue Laser Light proved very effective. The signal laser was seen by the rescue aircraft from 5 nautical miles, the same distance as the pen flare. Julian’s conclusion was that “The night pyrotechnics (Mk 5 hand held night flare, Mk 8 pen flare) were very effective under NVG’s (night vision goggles) as was the signal laser. The laser had the advantage of providing continuous signalling whereas the flares had only limited burn times. The use of the flares to gain the attention of the crew followed by the use of the laser to maintain identification would be the best combination for night visual identification.”

It should be noted that the SAR exercise was conducted under very benign conditions with an almost flat sea and no wind to speak of. It would have been a different story trying to use the Rescue Laser Light effectively in rough conditions, as ideally you need to use both hands for most accuracy. One-handed operation is possible, but would probably be less effective. Two-handed operation is not impossible if you’re rafted up, a factor to consider. But a laser flare is undoubtedly a lot easier and less dangerous than using a conventional pyrotechnic distress flare.

A good independent review of the Rescue Laser Light can be found at: http://www.equipped.org/rescuelaser.htm

It is worth noting that not only is the Rescue Laser Light useful as a distress signal, it is also useful as a search tool. The laser beam will pick up reflective tape at great distances, useful for spotting a paddler or boat in the water at night or finding your tent in the dark (if it has reflective guylines), or even for attracting the attention of your mates in a non-emergency situation.

An Alternative to the Alternative: The OdeoFlare

Even more recently I’ve become aware of a different style of laser distress flare product known as the Odeoflare, so named because it is an omni-directional electro-optical device. This device is produced by OdeoFlare in UK. The Odeoflare is a bulkier and heavier device (265mm x 50mm and 330gm in weight, about the same as a pyrotechnic hand flare), but claims 5 hours continuous operation from 3 x L91 (AA size) lithium batteries. This device is waterproof and importantly it floats.

Although I haven’t yet laid my hands on this device, its greater advantage seems to be that it will be visible from any direction and only requires one hand to operate, that is, you just need to hold it up like a conventional pyrotechnic hand flare rather than aim it at a rescuer.

Are they safe?

Both the Odeoflare and the Rescue Laser Light are classed as Type 3R laser products, which means they are not dangerous to the eye with brief accidental exposure, although it is obviously not recommended to look at any bright light source.

Greatland Laser claims that their Rescue Laser can safely be used to signal an aircraft for help when in distress, and that they will not cause eye injury or flash blindness to aircrew. Our practical exercise with Rescue 26 bore out this claim. Aircrew viewing the rescue laser had no complaint or damage with either naked eye or through night vision goggles.

What are the disadvantages?

By their very nature laser flares, just like hand flares, can only be operated from a kayak at sea level. The signal may not be visible to a rescuer at the same level a long distance away i.e. it will be below their horizon. In these circumstances, a pen flare, or a parachute or rocket flare could be a better option.

Secondly, a laser flare may not yet be generally recognised as a distress signal to the ‘man in the street’. This is perhaps a secondary consideration as a laser flare is designed as a location aid rather than a primary alerting device.

But there is evidence that people have responded to the OdeoFlare in the same way as they would a conventional pyrotechnic flare: from a distance the OdeoFlare appears the same, a bright glowing light.

Are laser flares legal?

In a nutshell, the Rescue Laser Flare is not a prohibited import, but is a prohibited weapon in most Australian jurisdictions and may require a permit.

The OdeoFlare, by contrast, is legal; it is neither a prohibited weapon nor a prohibited import.

By way of background, in Australia laser pointers with an emission level of greater than 1mW are prohibited imports under Schedule 2 of the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulation 1956, unless approved by the Minister or an authorised person.

Customs Firearms Policy Section, however, confirmed to me recently that Greatland Laser products, including the Rescue Laser Light, are not controlled for the purposes of importation into Australia and therefore do not require Permission to Import.

But in some, but not all, jurisdictions (both in Australia and overseas) laser pointers may be classed as prohibited weapons, including in NSW.

In NSW at the time of writing, a Rescue Laser Flare is classed as a prohibited weapon. The NSW Weapons Prohibition Act 1998 prohibits “A laser pointer, or any other similar article, that consists of a hand-held battery-operated device with a power output of more than 1 milliwatt, designed or adapted to emit a laser beam and that may be used for the purposes of aiming, targeting or pointing.”

The Rescue Laser Light is currently deemed by the NSW Police Firearms Registry to be prohibited by virtue of the fact that it falls within that definition. It is possible to apply for a permit as outlined on the NSW Police website. Before considering whether to buy such a product, I urge you to check the relevant legislation, and seek advice from the appropriate police Firearms Registry.

As outlined above, the Odeoflare is legal in NSW and other States, and does not require an import permit, because it does not fall within the legislative definitions of laser pointer.

Where can I get one?

Due to previous restrictions on the import of lasers, the Rescue Laser Light (and other Greatland Laser products) is currently not distributed in Australia. However, the manufacturer, Greatland Laser, is willing to ship their products to Australia in the light of the recent determination by Customs, and are currently investigating reactivating their network of distributors.

Odeoflares can be mailed from the UK but without the lithium batteries which Australia Post will not deliver. The batteries can be readily purchased here in Australia.

If you want to satisfy yourself about the legality of these products for import purposes, or would like a determination to ensure you can import one, contact the Weapons Policy section of Customs and/or the Firearms Registry of the relevant police force.

Should I get one?

In summary, if you carry a PLB and/or VHF to summon external assistance in an emergency, you should also seriously consider ‘the final mile’ i.e. how are you going to guide the resulting search aircraft or vessel to your precise location, even if the rescuers are looking in the right general area?

Rescue lasers are of course not the only device available for this. ‘Traditional’ pyrotechnic flares, sea dye, strobes, headtorches, V sheets, rescue streamers and divers’ safety sausages all have their place. But in my view, rescue lasers offer so many advantages, particularly in size, weight, signalling duration and safety, over other distress signals that they should be seriously considered as part of any paddler’s essential safety kit.

Stu Truman’s verdict after the SAR exercise at Rock ‘n’ Roll? “I want one of them.”

Advertisements