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Are flares redundant?

The RYA continues to press for change in the carriage requirement for flares.

It is some time since we raised the issue of getting rid of your old flares in Cruising News. However, given the fact that it is almost impossible to get rid of unwanted, out of date flares legally and free of charge, it is worth looking again at effective alternatives that might replace them altogether, particularly as the MCA has recently launched a new coastal safety website that does not mention flares once!

Before going any further, it should be made absolutely clear that the RYA recognises that there will be those who wish to carry flares as part of their safety equipment. It is not our intention to prevent them from doing so. However, in every other area of society the holders of hazardous waste (which out of date flares are classified as) are expected to dispose of it legally and responsibly, and to bear the cost of doing so. If you do choose to carry flares then we strongly advise that their eventual disposal and any costs must become part of your buying decision.

Apart from being difficult to dispose of, there are a significant number of drawbacks associated with flares. They have a shelf-life and must be replaced every three years or so which compounds the disposal problem. Evidently you cannot test them; you won’t know if they are going to work until you have to fire them.

You need to rely on someone else seeing them and doing something about it; you won’t know if someone has reacted until rescue arrives or you have used your last flare and you are still on your own because that person thought you were having a party. Lastly they are dangerous; the fact that they can be easily purchased ‘over the counter’ in the climate we live in should make us all shudder.

In 2017, we have great safety devices for initiating a distress alert. We have DSC VHF, EPIRB and PLB which give the Coastguard and search and rescue services the critical information that they need to find and assist a vessel in distress.  In fact modern networked communication has been key to enabling the MCA to reorganise the Coastguard and close eight stations across the UK.

To aid location (that is pinpointing where you are) there are a myriad of non-explosive signalling devices such as AIS and the so called non-pyrotechnic flares or Electronic Visual Distress Signal (EVDS) that have greatly improved signalling time, range and ease of operation.

Four years ago the MCA published MIN 464 on the use of non-pyrotechnic flares. This drew attention to the fact that EVDS are not a substitute for pyrotechnic flares, but it did recognised that both UK SOLAS and UK Non- SOLAS vessels EVDS may be carried and used as a locating device. Regrettably this practical common sense advice was withdrawn in July 2015.

It would now appear that many more rescues have been triggered by raising the alert with a mobile phone rather than flares. The RYA SafeTrx App has been specifically designed to monitor boat trips and to alert emergency contacts ashore should the craft fail to return on time. SafeTrx is now the standard marine mobile safety platform in nine countries - Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Finland, Norway, Australia and South Africa and warrants serious consideration, particularly on smaller craft that might not be capable of carrying an entire suite of GMDSS equipment components.

RYA Cruising Manager Stuart Carruthers comments: "The whole farce over disposing of flares has made many question the validity of carrying them at all.

"Flares were developed as an alerting and locating device in the days before modern electronics and when the coast was manned with coastguard lookouts and quite frankly there was nothing else. Even 40 years ago mariners would have given their right arm for something like an EPIRB.

"Nowadays we have EPIRB worldwide and VHF DSC locally in sea area A1 to raise the alert. Between September 1982 and December 2015 the Cospas-Sarsat System provided assistance in rescuing at least 41,750 persons in 11,788 SAR events. This now provides the opportunity to look at reducing reduce the requirement for flares to a locating function only, but even this could easily be replaced by non-explosive means."

Bearing in mind how few flares are actually used by recreational boaters and given the availability and effectiveness of modern electronic devices, we believe it is now time to review the advice on the carriage of flares and for the MCA to reconsider the mandatory carriage requirements.

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