Ventura County Fire Department via AP
LOS ANGELES – The Coast Guard announced new safety rules following a deadly fire that killed 34 people on a scuba diving boat off the coast of California more than two years ago, including the installation of fire detection and extinguishing equipment.
The 2019 Labor Day fire aboard the Conception off Santa Barbara marked the deadliest shipping disaster in modern state history and led to criminal charges and calls for more regulation. strict for small passenger vessels.
The new interim rules will come into effect over the next two years. In addition to fire systems, owners of boats with overnight passengers will need to, among other things, provide better escapes below decks and use devices that ensure a night watchman is alert and makes frequent rounds.
An inquest into the disaster blamed the owners of the Conception for a lack of supervision and the boat’s captain for failing to post a roving watchman on board the vessel, which allowed the fire to spread quickly and trap all 33 passengers and a crew member below deck. Captain Jerry Boylan and four crew, who were all sleeping above deck, escaped.
Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via AP
Boylan pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of sailor manslaughter. He is free on bail pending trial in US District Court in Los Angeles.
The new rules were expected after Congress in December 2020 requested that the Coast Guard review its regulations for small passenger vessels. The law, included in the National Defense Authorization Act, also added new requirements regarding the detection and suppression of fires.
The new rules apply to small passenger ships with sleeping quarters or operating on oceans or coastal routes, but exclude fishing boats and ferries.
The National Transportation Safety Board recommended in its investigation that the Coast Guard require boat owners to install more comprehensive smoke detection systems, upgrade emergency exits and perform mandatory inspection checks on traveling watches.
Since 1991, no owner, operator, or charterer has received a citation or fine for not posting a traveling patrol, prompting the NTSB to criticize the Coast Guard for not enforcing this requirement and recommend developing a program to ensure boats with overnight passengers have watchmen.
The rules would also require boats to have at least two exits, so if one is not available there is another way to escape. Exits must be unobstructed and both cannot be directly above a berth.
The Conception bunk had an open stairwell to the bow and a small, hard-to-reach and difficult-to-pass escape hatch above one of the berths in the center of the boat. However, both led to the kitchen, which was on fire.
Family members of those who died have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the boat company, Truth Aquatics Inc., and the family that owned it. They also sued the Coast Guard for lax enforcement which they say convicted people below deck.
The families said the fire detection and extinguishing systems were non-compliant and that the two dormitory escapes violated Coast Guard regulations because they led to the same location.
The boat had passed its last two Coast Guard safety inspections.
The Coast Guard declined to comment on the lawsuit due to a policy of not discussing ongoing litigation.
Rules published late last month in the Federal Register begin to take effect March 28 and may be subject to change after a public comment period that ends in June.
Other new requirements include better crew training, evacuation drills for passengers and guidance on how to handle flammable items such as rechargeable batteries.
While investigators said they could not determine the cause of the fire because the boat burned and sank, they say the fire started towards the aft of the main deck saloon – where the divers had plugged in phones, flashlights and other items with combustible lithium-ion batteries.
After the fire, the Coast Guard issued a bulletin recommending limiting unattended shipboard use of lithium-ion batteries and heavy use of power strips and extension cords.