USCG plans to issue interim rules to improve small passenger vessel safety post dive boat tragedy

Image credit: Ventura County Fire Department
Image credit: Ventura County Fire Department

The U.S. Coast Guard has announced its intention to issue a set of interim rules on certain covered small passenger vessels, the first step to implementing the statutorily mandated requirement. The interim rule is in response to the fire and loss of life on the dive boat Conception off the coast of California on 2 September 2019.

This interim rule adds additional fire safety requirements for small passenger vessels, including fire detection and suppression systems, avenues of escape, egress drills, crew firefighting training, watchmen monitoring devices, and the handling of flammable items such as rechargeable batteries.

The rules address many of the safety recommendations the NTSB issued as a result of its investigation of the fire aboard the Conception. The fire occurred in the middle of the night as the boat was anchored off the California coast near Santa Barbara, killing 33 passengers and one crewmember.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the fire and subsequent sinking was the failure of the Conception’s owner and operator to provide effective oversight of its vessel and crew member operations, including requirements to ensure that a roving patrol was maintained, which allowed the fire to grow, undetected, in the vicinity of the aft salon on the main deck.

Contributing to the undetected growth of the fire was the lack of a Coast Guard regulatory requirement for smoke detection in all accommodation spaces. Inadequate emergency escape arrangements from the vessel’s bunkroom, as both exited into a compartment that was engulfed in fire, thereby preventing escape, contributed to the high loss of life.

“The Coast Guard’s interim rules addressing the recommendations the NTSB issued following its investigation of the deadly Labor Day 2019 fire aboard the Conception are a welcome step towards improving the safety of passengers and crew on small passenger vessels,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy.

The NTSB’s latest Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements, issued in April 2021, included improving passenger and fishing vessel safety, in part due to the Conception fire.

Details of the interim ruling can be found on the Federal Register.

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