USCG regulations prohibit display of distress signals except when a distress actually exists. You should only use distress signals when help is close enough to see the signal. The USCG recognizes both pyrotechnic and non-pyrotechnic devices.
A minimum of three pyrotechnic devices must be carried. Pyrotechnic VDSs must be USCG approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible.
The following combinations of signals are examples of Pyrotechnic VDSs that could be carried onboard to satisfy USCG requirements:
The Orange distress flag is required only for recreational boats more than 20 feet in length. Day use only.
Like a flashlight (night use only)
Or, within sight of another person, you can signal distress by extending both arms out and raising them up and down. Arm signal does not meet equipment requirements but if you do not have any other distress signals, wave your arms to summon HELP.
All vessels used on coastal waters, the Great Lakes, territorial seas, and those waters connected directly to them up to a point where a body of water is less than two miles wide, must be equipped with USCG approved visual distress signals (VDS). Vessels owned in the United States operating on the high seas must be equipped with USCG approved visual distress signals.
These vessels are not required to carry day signals but must carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise:
These signaling devices must be in serviceable condition, stowed where readily accessible and marked with a date showing serviceable life. Make sure they have not expired. Distress flares, smoke flares and meteor rockets have expiration dates 42 months after the date of manufacture.