In the aftermath of the Conception dive boat fire which claimed the lives of 34 people, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representatives Salud Carbajal and Julia Brownley, all Democrats from California, have introduced a bill to update what they call “antiquated” and grandfathered-in safety laws related to small passenger vessels.
Although the NTSB is still investigating the incident, the bill, entitled the “Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act”, seeks establish new safety measures specific to those being investigated in the Conception fire and as well as other similar incidents involving small passenger vessels.
Specifically, the bill will require small passenger vessels to have no less than two means of escape to different parts of the vessel; mandates safety standards for the handling and storage of phones, cameras and other electronic devices with lithium ion batteries; and establishes stricter standards for interconnected fire alarm systems.
The Conception caught fire as passengers and crew slept early in the morning on September 2, 2019, during overnight dive excursion off Santa Cruz Island, California. The fire killed all 33 passengers and one crew member who were sleeping in the vessel’s lower bunk room.
Many of the passengers are believed to have died from smoke inhalation in the bunkroom because flames were blocking an emergency exit.
Five crew members sleeping on the top sun deck survived.
While the exact cause of the fire is still being investigated, a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report found that smoke alarms on the vessel only sounded locally and were not interconnected throughout the vessel, so the crew on the above decks weren’t alerted.
Shortly following the incident, the U.S. Coast Guard also issued a Marine Safety Information Bulletin to operators to take measures limit potential fire hazards, including the unsupervised charging of lithium ion batteries and the use of extension cords.
The USCG plans to convene its own formal Marine Board of Investigation into the incident.
“The Conception boat fire was a tragedy that could have been prevented had stronger safety measures been in place. We can’t allow this to happen again,” said Senator Feinstein. “We must ensure that small passenger vessels have the right safety measures in place to prevent disasters at sea. This bill addresses the specific conditions that are being investigated as causes of the Conception fire, conditions that exist on hundreds of similar vessels in operation today. Congress should act on this bill before another tragedy strikes.”
“While we await NTSB’s final report on the Conception incident, it is abundantly clear that Congress must take immediate action to address safety hazards on older boats, which were grandfathered-in and exempted from newer safety rules. I thank Senator Feinstein and Congressman Carbajal for their efforts to ensure the safety of passengers and crew, and I am proud to co-author this critical boat safety legislation,” said Representative Brownley.
“If we are to save lives and make necessary reforms in the wake of the Conception tragedy, we must no longer allow older vessels to operate under antiquated regulations at the expense of our public safety,” said Representative Carbajal. “Our bill to modernize maritime safety is not only practical, it’s imperative. Over the years, we have seen enough evidence from previous disasters and other investigations to know that the time to put safety first is long overdue. I’m proud to work with my friends and fellow Californians, Senator Feinstein and Rep. Brownley, to bring forward a bill that makes our waters safer and makes important updates to an outdated system.”
The Conception was owned and operated by Truth Aquatics, Inc., based in Santa Barbara, California.