Carbajal, lawmakers questions Coast Guard, NTSB on marine safety issues in Santa Barbara
Officials have made progress in implementing greater safety measures for small passenger vessels, but more is still needed to be done, U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal said following a hearing in Santa Barbara Monday.
The House Democrat led his U.S. House Transportation Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Monday from the Santa Barbara City Hall, where he and other lawmakers questioned National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy and Rear Admiral John Mauger, the U.S. Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for prevention policy.
Specifically, lawmakers asked officials about safety regulations imposed since the fatal Conception boat fire in 2019 near Santa Cruz Island as well the tragic duck boat accident in Branson, Mo., in 2018. Thirty-four people died in the Conception fire; 17 people were killed in the duck boat accident.
“Today is about the fact that we lost 34 lives in a tragic accident off our coast,” Rep. Carbajal told reporters following the hearing in the Santa Barbara City Council chambers. “Today also commemorates that we are finally implementing important recommendations that will improve safety for the public to continue to enhance safety when they step aboard these vessels.”
Rear Admiral Mauger said the Coast Guard is in the process of reviewing the possibility of a new rule requiring Safety Management Systems for smaller, domestic passenger vessels. An SMS is a structured procedure for safety safeguards to identify risks and improve safety management.
Rear Admiral Mauger said the Coast Guard received a bevy of public input about the possibility of implementing an SMS requirement for smaller passenger vessels and is working to consider those comments, as well as the diverse nature of the industry, before implementing a new rule.
Ms. Homendy encouraged the small passenger vessel industry to voluntarily implement SMS practices while the Coast Guard works on an official rule.
“I do understand rulemaking can be difficult, but in the meantime, we continue to see tragedies which have taken lives. So moving forward in an expeditious manner is important, but while the Coast Guard is moving forward, there is nothing preventing the passenger vessel industry from implementing SMS voluntarily — and they should,” Ms. Homendy said.
Additionally, Ms. Homendy said NTSB would continue to push for the inclusion of voyage data recorders on all domestic passenger vessels, which she said is “critical” for both investigators and companies and other stakeholders to be able to quickly implement other safety measures. She encouraged Congress to take action to require VDRs, noting the NTSB has “not seen progress with the Coast Guard on this issue.”
“The response has been focused on the cost-benefit analysis. From NTSB’s standpoint, lives are priceless, and … we should do everything we can to save lives and prevent tragedy,” Ms. Homendy said.
Ms. Homendy also said NTSB recommends the implementation of mandated personal locator beacons for crew members, which she said cost about $300.
When asked why this has not yet been implemented, Rear Admiral Mauger said federal regulations require the Coast Guard to make economic analyses unless otherwise directed by Congress.
“This is another area where technology is emerging very quickly,” Rear Admiral Mauger said.
Committee members also took time to recognize the late U.S. Rep. Don Young, a Republican from Alaska and the dean of the House, who died Friday at the age of 88. He was a member of the subcommittee.
Following the hearing, Rep. Carbajal said he was going to visit a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Conception fire along with some of the victims’ family members. He recognized family members were in the audience for Monday’s hearing.