Risks of using non SOLAS or non-pyrotechnic distress flares highlighted in new MCA MIN

The UK MCA has released a marine notice, MIN 542, which highlights the specific risks of using non SOLAS or non-pyrotechnic distress flares, for example Electronic Visual Distress Signals (EVDS).

To be effective, distress signals need to be internationally recognised. Not all EVDS provide a distress signal listed in COLREGS Annex IV (such as SOS), and the MCA knows of no EVDS device which is compliant with the SOLAS technical performance standards for distress flares. Consequently, the international carriage requirements do not recognise EVDS and the UK national carriage requirements have not been amended to formally recognise them either.

A change would therefore be needed to Annex IV of the COLREGS or to the SOLAS technical performance standards and to the applicable international/UK national carriage requirements in order to offer these devices full recognition as distress signals. The MCA sees no likely potential of this in the near future because objective evidence of a compelling need for change is yet to emerge.

Certain commercial vessels are required to carry flares in accordance with the applicable carriage requirements and such flares (other than hand-held smoke signals) must meet the requirements of the Marine Equipment Directive (MED) unless an alternative technical performance standard (such as MSN1676) is specified. Compliance with the MED is demonstrated by the presence of the Wheel Mark. MED compliance incorporates compliance with European and IMO requirements. The MCA is not aware of any EVDS product which meets the light intensity required by the IMO or MSN1676 for distress flares. This means that for commercial vessels EVDS products cannot be used in place of the flares required in carriage requirements.

Where carriage of flares is not mandatory, the MCA nevertheless advises that EVDS should not currently be carried as a substitute for conventional pyrotechnic flares. This is because of the risk that EVDS may not be recognised internationally as a distress signal. However, for pleasure vessels, seagoing commercial vessels, and most non–seagoing commercial vessels, EVDS may be carried in addition to the required distress signalling equipment and used to identify location or transmit the S-O-S distress signal through a switch mechanism (just as a torch or other light-emitting device could be used). However, the limitations of EVDS devices should be recognised and anyone using them should be made aware of the type and quality of signal being generated.

Read MIN 542: MCA MIN 542

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