Does Your Boat Meet The Minimum Federal Safety Equipment Requirements?

Updated 12:53 PM ET, Mon January 11, 2016

Article highlights

  • There must be one USCG approved life jacket for every person onboard.
  • Visual distress signals are required for all vessels operating on U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes, and territorial seas.
  • USCG approved extinguishers required for recreational boats must be hand-portable, have either a B-I or B-II classification, and come with a mounting bracket.
Does your boat meet the minimum federal safety equipment requirements? Did you know that, along with the federal standards, many states and local law enforcement jurisdictions have their own safety requirements as well? It would take up too much space here to review safety equipment standards by state, so this article will focus on the federal requirements. However, please note that it is always important to know all the minimum safety equipment requirements for any place you plan on visiting.

Does Your Boat Meet The Minimum Federal Safety Equipment Requirements?

The federal government has defined a set of safety requirements that vary by the size and intended use of your boat. These federal requirements have been established by the United States Coast Guard (USCG), and are the "minimum" standards for recreational vessels. In order to meet these standards, the required safety equipment must be USCG "approved" or "certified". To be USCG certified, equipment must meet certain specifications for performance and construction (materials). Life jacket requirements, visual distress signals, and fire extinguishers are included in the equipment that must meet federal/USCG standards and regulations.

Life Jackets

Life jackets are a requirement on all recreational boats, with no exceptions. One wearable life jacket must be onboard for every person on the boat. Any boat 16 feet and longer (except canoes or kayaks) must also have onboard one throwable (Type IV) device. It is strongly encouraged that life jackets be worn at all times while onboard, but this is not a requirement. Life jackets come in a variety of styles and are commonly referred to as personal flotation devices (PFDs).

All life jackets must be USCG approved; this is identifiable by the label on the life jacket. Each life jacket should be in good and serviceable condition, and must also be the appropriate size and type for the intended user. There are three different types of flotation construction used for life jackets:

Inherently Buoyant - Inherently buoyant life jackets are primarily made of foam. These are the most common and reliable life jackets and come in adult, youth, child, and infant sizes. They also come in both wearable and throwable styles with special designs available for water sports.

Inflatable - Inflatable life jackets are the most compact PFDs. They are lightweight and comfortable to wear. Because of this, you may be more likely to wear this PFD at all times; however, inflatable life jackets are sized only for adults. These jackets are recommended only for those boaters that already know how to swim. They come in wearable, but not throwable styles.

Hybrid - Hybrid life jackets are a combination of foam and inflation. These PFDs are very reliable and they provide inherent and inflatable buoyancy. They come in adult, youth and child sizes and, like the inflatable jacket, they come in the wearable style. Some hybrid life jackets are designed for water sports.

Types of Life Jackets

Life jackets are classified as Type (I, II, III, and V). These "Types" are based upon your planned activities and the water conditions you expect to encounter. Each type has its pros and cons, and some are more suitable to certain types of rescue.

The Type I life jacket is considered suitable for use in an offshore boating application. This style of life jacket offers the most buoyancy and is most effective in open, rough, or remote waters where rescue may be delayed. It is designed to turn an unconscious wearer to a face-up position in the water and comes in highly visible colors. The disadvantage to this jacket is that it tends to be bulky.

Type II life jackets are considered to be good for use in near shore, calm, inland waters or where there is a good chance of quick rescue. Inherently buoyant life jackets of this type will turn some unconscious wearers to a face-up position in the water, but the turning is not as pronounced as with a Type I. This jacket tends to be less bulky and more comfortable than the Type I.

Type III life jackets are worn like a vest. They are a good flotation aid for users who are in calm, inland waters, or when there is a good chance of a quick rescue. In contrast to Type I and Type II jackets, the wearer of a Type III may have to tilt his/her head back to maintain a face-up position in the water. The Type III foam vest has the same minimum buoyancy as a Type II. It comes in many styles, colors, and sizes and is generally considered the most comfortable type for continuous wear. Float coats, fishing vests, and vests designed with features suitable for various sports activities are examples of a Type III vest. This type of inflatable turns as well as a Type II foam vest, but the inflatable is not recommended for non-swimmers.

Type V life jackets are special use life jackets such as work vests, deck suits, and restricted hybrids. They are intended for specific activities such as kayaking, water skiing, and windsurfing; and must be used for the activity specified on the label. If the label says the life jacket is "approved only when worn", then the life jacket must be worn (except by persons in enclosed spaces). Basically, a Type V jacket has to be used in accordance with the label to meet carriage requirements. Some Type V devices provide significant hypothermia protection.

Throwable devices are known as a Type IV flotation aid and are a good backup to the wearable life jacket. Throwables are intended for use anywhere, but are not recommended for the non-swimmer, unconscious person, or child. It is designed to be thrown to a person in the water who will then grasp the straps of the flotation device and hold it to his/her chest until rescued. It is not designed or intended to be worn. Type IV devices include buoyant cushions, ring buoys, and horseshoe buoys.

Child Life Jacket Requirements

On a vessel that is underway, children under 13 years of age MUST wear an appropriate USCG approved life jacket unless they are 1.) below deck, or 2.) within an enclosed cabin. If state law has established a child life jacket requirement that differs from the USCG requirement, then the state requirement must be followed on waters subject to that state's jurisdiction.

Children's life jackets are approved for specific weight categories. Adult-sized life jackets will not work for children. Check the "user weight" on the label and look for an approval statement.

Approval statements usually sound something like "Approved for use on recreational boats and uninspected commercial vessels not carrying passengers for hire by persons weighing less than 30 lbs."

To work correctly on a child, a life jacket must be snug and not allow the child's ears or chin to slip through.

Visual Distress Signals

Visual distress signals are required for all vessels operating on U.S. coastal waters, the Great Lakes, and territorial seas. In addition, vessels operating on those waters with a passageway to the sea of at least two nautical miles wide, must also be equipped with USCG approved visual distress signals (VDS). Lastly, vessels owned in the United States and operating on the high seas must also have USCG approved visual distress signals.

The following vessels are not required to carry day signals, but MUST carry night signals when operating from sunset to sunrise:

1. Recreational boats less than 16 feet in length.

2. Boats participating in organized events, such as races, regattas, or marine parades.

3. Open sailboats less than 26 feet in length that are not equipped with propulsion machinery.

4. Manually propelled boats.

Visual Distress Signals (VDS) come packaged as pyrotechnic, non-pyrotechnic, and electric signals. Pyrotechnic visual distress signals must be USCG approved, in serviceable condition, and readily accessible. Always be sure to check the expiration date. Expired signals may be carried as extra equipment, but cannot be counted toward meeting the visual distress signal requirement.

Launchers for pyrotechnic devices manufactured before January 1, 1981, and intended for use with approved signals, are not required to be USCG approved as long as they remain in serviceable condition. If pyrotechnic devices are selected, a minimum of three signals are required for day use and three signals for night use. Some pyrotechnic signals meet both day and night use requirements (combination flares). Pyrotechnic devices should be stored in a cool, dry place (if possible). A watertight container painted red or orange and prominently marked "DISTRESS SIGNALS" or "FLARES" is recommended.

USCG approved pyrotechnic visual distress signals and associated devices include:

1. Pyrotechnic red flares, hand-held or aerial (day/night use).

2. Pyrotechnic orange smoke, hand-held or floating (day use).

3. Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares.

Non-pyrotechnic visual distress signals must be in serviceable condition, readily accessible, and certified by the manufacturer as complying with USCG requirements. For example, the:

1. Orange Distress Flag - May be used as a day signal only and must be at least 3 x 3 feet in size with a black square and ball on an orange background.

2. Electric Devices - The Electric Distress Light is approved for nighttime use. This electric distress light automatically flashes the international SOS distress signal (. . . - - - . . .). Other electric distress devices can be a bright flashlight or a laser rescue flare that is visible for up to 20 miles.

The following are just a few of the many combinations of devices that will meet the requirements:

3 hand-held red flares that are approved for day/night use
1 hand-held red flare and 2 parachute flares for day/night use
1 hand-held orange smoke signal and 2 floating orange smoke signals for day, and 1 electric distress light for night

Fire Extinguishers

Fire extinguishers are required on boats when any of the following conditions exist:

1. There are closed compartments and compartments under seats where portable fuel tanks may be stored.

2. There are double bottoms not sealed to the hull or that are not completely filled with flotation materials.

3. There are closed living spaces.

4. There are closed stowage compartments in which combustible or flammable materials are stored.

5. There are permanently installed fuel tanks. A secured fuel tank is considered permanently installed if it cannot be moved in case of a fire or other emergency. Also, if the weight of a fuel tank is such that persons onboard cannot move it, the USCG may consider it permanently installed.

Fire Extinguisher Maintenance

Extinguishers should be inspected monthly to make sure that seals and tamper indicators are not broken or missing. If pressure gauges or other indicators are equipped, they must be in the operable range as described on the extinguisher. When inspecting the extinguisher, make sure there is no obvious physical damage, rust, corrosion, leakage, or clogged nozzles.

Fire extinguishers should be weighed annually in order to check against the minimum weight stated on the extinguisher label. If a fire extinguishers does not satisfy the above requirements or has been partially emptied, then it must be replaced or taken to a qualified fire extinguisher servicing company for recharge.

Required Number Of Fire Extinguishers

Listed below are the minimum number of fire extinguishers that are required on recreational vessels. If a USCG approved fixed fire extinguishing system is installed for the protection of the engine compartment, the required number of extinguishers may be reduced in accordance with the list below:

Less than 26 feet (one B-I)

26 feet to less than 40 feet (two B-I) or (one B-II) and (one B-I)

40 feet to 65 feet (three B-I) or (one B-II) and (one B-I) or
(two B-I ) and (one B-II)

USCG approved, marine-type fire extinguishers are required on boats where a fire hazard could be expected from the engines or fuel system. Extinguishers are classified by a letter and number symbol. The letter indicates the type of fire the unit is designed to extinguish. For example, Type B is designed to extinguish flaming liquids, such as gasoline, oil, and grease. The number classification indicates the amount of extinguishing agent contained in the extinguisher; the higher the number, the greater the amount of extinguishing agent.

USCG approved extinguishers required for recreational boats are hand-portable, have either a B-I or B-II classification, and must be provided with a mounting bracket. While not required, it is recommended that the extinguishers be mounted in a readily accessible location. Locations where the extinguisher can be reached easily should be considered. For example at or near the steering station or in the galley or engine room is acceptable. However, make sure NOTto mount a fire extinguisher at a location where a fire may likely start. This will make the extinguisher unreachable, therefore unusable during a time of emergency.

Extinguisher markings can be confusing because one extinguisher can be approved for several different types of fires (A, B, or C). For example, an extinguisher marked "Type A, Size II; Type B; C, Size I" is acceptable not only as a Type A-II, but also as a Type B-I extinguisher. Look for the section of the label that states "Marine Type USCG, Type A, Size II; Type B; C Size I". It will also contain a USCG approval number. Always make sure Type B is indicated; hand-portable extinguishers will be either a Size I or II.


At some point, most boaters will face a situation where they need help. The basic minimum safety equipment requirements insure that you can get the proper help you need for the problem you have . Please keep in mind that this article has only reviewed the minimum federal requirements. Your state and local boating law enforcement agencies may have additional requirements specific to your boating area. It is always important to know all the safety requirements in order to boat safely.

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