In light of the deadly fire on a scuba diving boat more than two years ago that claimed the lives of 34 people, which took place off the coast of Ventura County near Santa Cruz Island, the Coast Guard has announced new safety rules.
On Labor Day 2019, a fire aboard the Conception became the deadliest marine disaster in modern state history, leading to criminal charges and calls for stricter regulations on small passenger vessels.
The new rules have been issued on an interim basis and will take effect over the next two years. Among other regulations, owners of boats with overnight passengers will be required to provide better escapes from below deck and use devices that make sure a night watchman is alert and making frequent rounds. New requirements also include better training of crew, escape drills for passengers and guidance on how to handle flammable items such as rechargeable batteries.
In December of 2020, Congress mandated that the Coast Guard review their regulations for small passenger vessels, after which the laws were expected to be implemented. The law was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, and also added new requirements regarding fire detection and suppression. The new rules concern small passenger vessels with sleeping quarters, or those which operate on ocean or coastal routes, however it excludes fishing boats and ferries.
The new rules also require boats to have at least two exits, allowing a way of escape should one exit be unavailable. The exits must be clear and both exits cannot be located directly above a berth.
“The National Transportation Safety Board recommended in its investigation that the Coast Guard require boat owners to install more comprehensive smoke detector systems, upgrade emergency exits and make mandatory inspection checks on roving watches,” as reported by ABC7.
After an investigation into the 2019 fire, the owners of the Conception were blamed for a lack of oversight and the boat captain came under fire for failing to post a roving watchman on the boat, allowing the fire to spread quickly and trap 33 passengers and one crew member below the deck. Captain Jerry Boylan and four crew members, all of whom were sleeping above deck, escaped.
The family members of the victims have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the boat company, Truth Aquatics Inc., and the owners of the boat. The Coast Guard has also been sued for lax enforcement, which they say doomed those below the deck.
The rules, which were published last month in the Federal Register, will take effect March 28 and are subject to change after a public comment period ending in June.