Fatal Conception fire spurs new passenger vessel regulations

Thirty-four people died when the dive boat Conception caught fire in 2019.
Thirty-four people died when the dive boat Conception caught fire in 2019.
Thirty-four people died when the dive boat Conception caught fire
in 2019.

The U.S. Coast Guard has released new rules for small passenger vessels with overnight accommodations that are intended to improve fire safety and preparedness.

The interim rules, which took effect March 28, 2022, were inspired by the fatal fire on Sept. 2, 2019, aboard the dive boat Conception off California, the Coast Guard said in a notice in the Federal Register. The fire left 34 people dead and burned the 38-year-old ship to the waterline. 

“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 notice said. 

Congress mandated the regulatory changes in the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2020. The proposed changes impact non-ferry vessels with overnight accommodations regulated under Subchapters T and K. They will require these passenger vessels built before new regulations came into effect in March 1996 to meet those standards, along with other requirements.

The interim rules were announced Dec. 27, 2021, and most took effect March 28, 2022. Rules related to fire protection standards will have a one-year phase-in period, and those regarding vessel egress will take effect after a two-year phase-in period. The service said those periods recognize there could be challenges acquiring equipment or scheduling conversion work to meet the rules. 

The Coast Guard will promulgate final rules in the future after considering public comment and undertaking a comprehensive review. That review will consider, among other things, cost benefit considerations “not required to be addressed in this interim rule,” according to the Federal Register.

Conception was moored in Platts Harbor north of Santa Cruz Island when the fire started sometime around 0300. There were 33 passengers and six crewmembers on board for a three-day diving excursion around the Channel Islands. 

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators could not identify the ignition source or the time of ignition. They believe the fire started aft in the passenger salon on the main deck. Likely ignition sources include the ship’s electrical system, camera or phone batteries left charging or discarded smoking materials, the NTSB said. A photo taken before the fire shows a nest of power strips and electronics charging in the salon.

Investigators believe most of the victims were awake during the fire but were unable to escape. One means of escape was a spiral staircase to the forward salon, which was engulfed in flames. The emergency escape hatch, accessible from a bunk bed, also opened to the salon.

The NTSB report identified numerous gaps in existing regulations for small overnight passenger vessels. There was no interconnected fire alarm system aboard Conception, for instance, and no fire alarms in the salon space where the fire started. Conception was built in 1981, and therefore was not subject to regulations that took effect in 1996.

The interim rules address many recommendations requested by the NTSB. For instance, the Coast Guard will now require interconnected smoke alarm systems installed in areas where passengers and crew have routine access.  

Operators also must “develop safe handling procedures for the operation and storage of potentially hazardous items such as rechargeable batteries (and) develop crew firefighting and emergency egress training,” according to the Federal Register. 

Passenger vessels must have two unobstructed means of escape that are separate from a berthing area under the interim rules. Passengers must conduct escape drills, and operators must post a document indicating escape plans within passenger spaces. 

The Coast Guard declined to comment on the interim rules during the ongoing rulemaking process. However, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy praised the new standards. She described them as “a welcome step towards improving the safety of passengers and crew on small passenger vessels.”

Capt. Dan Blanchard, owner and CEO of UnCruise Adventures, said the rules will impact each vessel, and each operator, differently. He also noted the final regulations have not yet been issued. 

“We are certainty going to be affected,” he told Professional Mariner recently, noting that its two ships already meet international SOLAS rules, which generally exceed Coast Guard regulations. “For us there are going to be some changes, but it is not a huge lift at all.”

In a statement, the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) said it has provided comments supportive of the Coast Guard interim rules. “Fire prevention, detection, and mitigation are core competencies in the domestic passenger vessel industry,” the group said. “Where there are areas of improvement PVA will work toward sensible solutions.”