LIFEBOAT crews on Wearside have issued a warning about Chinese lanterns this Bonfire Night.
Volunteers at Sunderland RNLI want people to be aware that false call-outs to deal with the lanterns and flares will make lifeboats unavailable to attend other incidents.
The popular lanterns, which are made from paper and are fuelled by a wax paper wick, are increasingly popular at this time of year.
But people are being warned that they can easily be mistaken for distress signals.
Lifeboat officials say that red distress flares are easier to spot as they fall after being fired, whereas lanterns continue to rise before going out.
Also, any misuse of flares, such as for entertainment during firework celebrations, could divert search and rescue boats and crews away from genuine emergencies.
Paul Nicholson, helmsman at Sunderland RNLI, said: “We have been reasonably lucky with Chinese lanterns, but I can think of two incidents: one was in the sea off Hendon this year when we had to launch the lifeboat after getting calls from members of the public.”
Ben Mitchell, volunteer crewman at Sunderland RNLI Station, said: “Often the crews are local to the station and can identify the lanterns and warn the Coastguard, but with an untrained person noticing the lanterns, a well-intentioned call can mean an exhaustive search in sometimes-challenging conditions for the volunteers at Sunderland.”
Ben also offered advice to those looking to use lanterns over the weekend.
He said: “The message from the RNLI and the volunteers at Sunderland is simple: if people want to use Chinese lanterns near to the coast, they should contact the Coastguard Operations Room prior to the occasion and inform them where and when they wish to fire them.
“It is important for people who maliciously-fire distress flares to understand that they are carrying out an act which is exactly the same as making a hoax 999 call.
“This action could have serious consequences if someone was in genuine need of assistance while we were dealing with a false call.”
When flares reach their expiry date people should dispose of them carefully. However, safety officials say that the temptation to fire them as a means of disposal must be avoided as it could cause an accident.
Guidance on the disposal is available by calling the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on 01262 672 317.