Distress Signals: What You Need to Know


By the Office of Boating Safety—Transport Canada

Flares – also known as pyrotechnic distress signals – can mean the difference between life and death when out on the water. They let other boaters and potential rescue teams know that a distress situation is occurring in the area.

All pleasure craft longer than 6 metres must carry pyro-technic distress signals when navigating on a body of water where they may be more than one nautical mile from shore. Motorized boats less than 6 metres in length may be equipped with waterproof flashlights instead of flares.


Tips for safely reducing the number of distress signals on board

Flares are expensive to purchase and have a relatively short lifespan—just four years from the manufacture date stamped on them. That means they need to be replaced often. The problem is, flares can be hard to dispose of in a safe and environmentally sound manner.

In May 2018, Transport Canada amended the Small Vessel Regulations to reduce the number of distress flares that must be on board pleasure craft longer than 6 metres in length, provided the following conditions are met:

  • The number of smoke flares (type D) cannot exceed 50% of the permitted number of smoke signals, and
  • The craft must be equipped with at least one of the following devices:
    • Two-way radio communication system
    • 406 MHz personal locator beacon subject to the technical acceptance certificate carried by the pleasure craft operator
    • 406 MHz emergency position-indicating beacon

Personal locator beacons and emergency position-indicating beacons are expensive and rarely found on pleasure craft. However, the vast majority of craft are equipped with a VHF radio and many boaters today have a cell phone. Both devices, when functional, are considered a two-way communication system. Boaters who carry such devices with them on board can therefore cut the required number of flares in half.

This lowers the purchase cost of such equipment for boaters. It also reduces the number of devices in circulation and eases the challenges associated with their disposal.


Electronic visual distress signals (eVDSD)

In November 2019, after consulting with marine stakeholders and other partners, Transport Canada accepted electronic visual distress signal devices (eVDSD) as an approved alter-native to traditional pyrotechnic distress signals.

Unlike traditional signals, eVDSD do not have an expiration date and are battery operated. When kept in good condition, these devices do not need to be replaced. Drained batteries simply need to be replaced.

The main advantage of an eVDSD is that it reduces the number of conventional distress signals required on board. This lowers costs for boaters over the long run and leaves a smaller environmental footprint.

By complying with the above, boaters can either cut the required number of conventional distress signals on board by half OR they can eliminate these devices entirely with a single eVDSD, regardless of the number required by the Small Vessel Regulations.

That said, there are a few rules to respect when equipping a pleasure craft with an electronic visual distress signal. The eVDSD must be:

  • Accompanied by a traditional, Transport Canada approved smoke signal
  • Accompanied by documentation from an accredited product certification body, or the United States Coast Guard (USCG), stating that it has been tested and meets the requirements of the RTCM standard 13200.0
  • Labelled with the statement, “Complies with RTCM Standard 13200.0 for an eVDSD”

To meet the above standard, the eVDSD must have the following:

  • Signal characteristic in the form of a 2-colour cyan (blue) and red-orange S-O-S light sequence
  • Near-infrared signal so it can be detected with night vision goggles
  • Average effective intensity of at least 50 candela
  • At least 2 hours continuous operating life

Any written manuals, operating instructions, and warnings accompanying the eVDSD must be in both English and French. The device must be regularly inspected and maintained to ensure proper functioning. Regardless of the type and number of distress signals on board, they must be stored where they are immediately accessible.

If in doubt – or if you have questions about boating safety – visit the Transport Canada website at In the event of a discrepancy between the content of this article and the regulations, the regulations prevail.