Safety act sets new passenger vessel rules after Conception fire

Conception Fire
The charred hull of Conception is shown at dawn on Sept. 2, 2019 off Santa Cruz Island. It sank shortly afterward and was later raised from the sea floor.

The Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, which became law in January after Congress overrode President Trump’s veto of a larger bill, establishes new regulations for the industry in the aftermath of the deadly Conception dive boat fire.

The 75-foot Conception was anchored off Santa Cruz Island, Calif., when it caught fire in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019. Thirty-four people died in the incident, prompting congressional action led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The safety act was one of many items rolled into the 1,800-page National Defense Authorization Act.

The new regulations are aimed at deficiencies outlined in a National Transportation Safety Board report that determined all of the victims aboard Conception — 33 passengers and one crewmember — died of smoke inhalation after they were trapped in the berthing area while flames engulfed the salon and galley in the deck above. Both exits from the berthing area led to that enclosed space, which was filled with smoke and fire. Smoke alarms weren’t interconnected throughout the vessel, so crewmembers sleeping above the main deck weren’t alerted to the emergency. Five crew survived.

Provisions in the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act stipulate that boats like Conception must have no less than two means of escape to different parts of a vessel; safety protocols for handling and storing phones, cameras and other electronic devices with lithium-ion batteries; stricter standards for interconnected fire alarm systems; and monitoring devices to ensure the wakefulness of required night watch.

In co-sponsoring the bill, Feinstein said such “simple measures” could have prevented the tragedy.

After the fire, the U.S. Coast Guard launched a series of actions that included a nationwide inspection campaign focused on safety and regulatory compliance aboard overnight passenger vessels. The service also distributed an information bulletin highlighting key safety themes such as clear escape routes, crew readiness during emergencies, and hazards caused by too many personal electronic devices recharging at once.

“The Coast Guard is taking a shotgun approach in looking at everything we can to reduce fatalities aboard small passenger vessels and other commercial vessels to move the industry to a safer position and make the marine environment safer for the American public,” Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Kurt Fredrickson told Professional Mariner.

The Coast Guard is responsible for regulating and inspecting all passenger vessels that operate on U.S. navigable waters. Within this inspected fleet, a small passenger vessel is defined as any vessel less than 100 gross tons carrying more than six passengers, including at least one passenger for hire. The service conducts about 10,000 small passenger vessel inspections annually.

A more recent Coast Guard safety initiative involves a push to require safety management systems for all commercial vessels, with each SMS tailored to its particular vessel.

“An SMS is basically a safety plan for that boat — what’s the fire suppression system, how would passengers get off if X, Y or Z happens,” Fredrickson said, noting that many operators have created their own SMS for vessels even though it’s not yet a requirement.

In the interim, the Coast Guard is strongly recommending that operators establish voluntary SMS plans. On Feb. 6, the service published a safety bulletin that provides links to resources for small passenger vessel operators opting to do so. In January, it also published proposed rules for SMS on passenger vessels in the Federal Register. Public comments are being accepted through April 15.

The Passenger Vessel Association, which represents the interests of the U.S. passenger vessel industry, declined comment for this story.

Patricia McCarthy

By Professional Mariner Staff