After Conception Fire, Lawmakers Seek to Tighten Safety on "T-Boats"

The wreck of the Conception shortly before her sinking, September 2 (Ventura County Fire Dept.)

By The Maritime Executive 12-16-2019 09:41:00

In the wake of the deadly fire aboard the dive boat Conception off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, two congressmen and one senator from California have introduced legislation that would impose new fire safety and safety management system requirements on Subchapter T passenger vessels.

The dive boat Conception burned and sank in the early hours of September 2 off Santa Cruz Island, California. 34 people lost their lives in the accident, putting it among the ranks of the deadliest civilian marine casualties in recent U.S. history. The surviving members of the vessel's crew were berthed on the pilothouse level of the boat, and they were awakened by the fire, not by an alarm; at that point, it proved impossible to rescue the victims belowdecks. 

The Conception's smoke detectors were not connected together in a unified fire detection and alarm system, as fire systems meeting merchant-vessel standards are not required aboard a small "T-boat" with less than 49 passengers. Among other measures, the proposed Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 2019 would require Subchapter T vessels - and any older passenger vessels built of wood - to add interconnected fire detection and fire suppression equipment in all areas where passengers have regular access. It would also order improved fire detection for unmanned spaces and require Subchapter T crewmembers to undergo marine firefighting training. 

"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 Rep. Salud Carbajal, whose district includes Santa Cruz Island. “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.”

The bill would also impose ISM code safety management system (SMS) requirements on all domestic Subchapter T operators for the first time. Subchapter T passenger vessels must comply with the ISM code for international voyages, but for boats that only make domestic voyages - like Conception and many others - an SMS is encouraged rather than required.

“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.”

The NTSB, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Coast Guard's marine safety division, the Justice Department and the Coast Guard Investigative Service are conducting three parallel investigations into the circumstances of the fire.

In a hearing before the House Transportation committee last month, the head of the NTSB's marine safety office questioned whether the Coast Guard has done enought to implement lessons-learned from previous casualties. The NTSB has long called for SMS standards for small passenger vessels.