July 21, 2024
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Coast Guard says it will enforce new safety rules to prevent another deadly boat fire


The Conception caught fire in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019, killing 34 of the 39 people on board. (Photo courtesy Santa Barbara County Fire)

The U.S. Coast Guard says it will require interconnected smoke detectors, night watch patrols and other safety measures recommended for small passenger boats after the deadly fire on board the Conception dive boat in the Santa Barbara Channel in 2019.

In a Feb. 10 letter to the National Transportation Safety Board, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Scott Buschman said he concurred with all of the recommendations in the board’s October 2020 report on what might have prevented the fire and the 34 deaths it caused.

According to Buschman’s letter, the Coast Guard plans to require smoke detectors in the sleeping quarters of all passenger vessels; require smoke detectors that are connected to each other; inspect all passenger vessels to enforce an existing requirement that they post night watch patrols; require all boats with overnight accommodations to provide a secondary route of escape from the sleeping quarters; extend existing rules for newer boats that require unobstructed means of escape to boats built before 1996; and require operators of all passenger vessels to implement a “safety management system” that lays out how to respond to fires and other emergencies.

The NTSB did not rule on the cause of the fire itself, though it did find evidence that it might have been caused by a faulty electrical system or an overloaded outlet used to charge passengers’ phones and cameras.

Instead, the NTSB focused its report on what happened after the fire started, and concluded that lives would have been saved by a night watch patrol, better smoke detectors and easier emergency exit routes.

The boat’s captain, Jerry Nehl Boylan of Santa Barbara, faces 34 federal manslaughter charges based on alleged “misconduct, negligence and inattention to his duties.”

The new safety rules proposed by the NTSB and agreed to by the Coast Guard will not take effect immediately; most of them require new regulatory actions by the Coast Guard. The requirement for night watch patrols can be enforced immediately, though, and most of the other measures are already authorized by recently passed federal laws and require only administrative actions by the Coast Guard.

The new law on boat safety, the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, was authored by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and two House Democrats from the Central Coast: Julia Brownley of Ventura County and Salud Carbajal of Santa Barbara County.

All three lawmakers applauded the Coast Guard’s Feb. 10 letter.

“I am grateful to see that the Coast Guard is moving forward with implementing my Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act in a timely manner,” Carbajal said in a news release. “The Conception boat fire was an avoidable incident and I’m thankful the Coast Guard is taking the necessary and imperative steps to protect lives by ensuring a similar incident does not happen again.”