The Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 2019, introduced in the aftermath of the deadly Conception dive boat fire, has been enacted with the recent congressional override of President Donald Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act.
The Conception, a 75-foot commercial vessel based at the Santa Barbara Harbor, was anchored in Platts Harbor off Santa Cruz Island when it caught fire in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, 2019.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation determined that all 33 passengers and one crew member died of smoke inhalation when they were trapped by flames in a bunk room below deck. Five crew members who were sleeping above deck were able to escape from the vessel before it sank.
The NTSB found that the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics Inc. of Santa Barbara, failed to provide effective oversight of its crew and safety training.
The Conception-related bill was co-sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara.
“I was happy because this is a health and public safety piece of legislation that will go a long way to save lives and to avoid similar catastrophic tragedies in the future,” he told Noozhawk.
The bill directs the U.S. Coast Guard to implement safety reforms to small passenger vessels to prevent similar Conception-like disasters in the future.
The legislation became law after the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate each voted overwhelmingly to override Trump’s veto of the larger bill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the bill in the Senate, and Carbajal was joined in the House by Democratic Reps. Julia Brownley of Ventura County, Zoe Lofgren of San José, Grace Napolitano of Norwalk and Katie Porter of Irvine; Earl Blumenauer of Oregon; and Steve Cohen of Tennessee.
“I’m elated that I was able to work with Senator Feinstein and my colleague in the House, Representative Brownley, to move this forward and now implemented into law,” Carbajal said.
The law applies U.S. Coast Guard regulations regarding comprehensive safety management systems to small passenger vessels, like the Conception, and requires the agency to prescribe additional regulations to secure the safety of people and property on board.
The law also requires the vessels to have no less than two avenues of escape to different parts of the boat.
Safety standards are mandated for the handling and storage of devices with lithium-ion batteries, such as cameras, cell phones and other electronic equipment.
In addition, the law establishes stricter standards for interconnected fire alarm systems and requires monitoring devices to ensure the wakefulness of the required night watch person, among other requirements.
“We are going to see measures implemented to ensure that other individuals aren’t subjected to a similar tragedy,” Carbajal said. “That is what we are supposed to do as lawmakers — identify where we have gaps, issues and challenges in our daily lives, and where there are failures.
“It is incumbent to address those failures, and clearly here, we had a failure that led to a major tragedy in my district off our coast in the Channel Islands.”
Last fall, the NTSB determined the probable cause of the Conception’s fire and subsequent sinking was the failure of Truth Aquatics to provide effective oversight of its vessel and crew member operations, including requirements to ensure that a roving patrol was maintained. Investigators found that the lack of oversight allowed a fire of unknown cause to grow, undetected, in the vicinity of the aft salon on the main deck.
— Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.