US legislation would impose new rules on certain passenger vessels

Two US 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 politicians’ move followed the fire aboard dive boat Conception on September 2nd 2019 off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, southern California, which killed 34 people.

The only survivors when Conception burned and sank were members of the crew berthed on the pilothouse level of the boat. They were woken up by the fire rather than the alarm.

The Conception’s smoke detectors were not connected together in a unified fire detection and alarm system, because fire systems meeting merchant-vessel standards are not currently required aboard a small T-boat with fewer than 49 passengers.

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.

The bill would also impose ISM code safety management system requirements on all domestic Subchapter T operators. Subchapter T passenger vessels are already required to comply with the ISM code for international voyages, but for boats that only make domestic voyages it is encouraged rather than required.

The NTSB, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the US 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 Conception fire.

In a hearing before the House Transportation committee in November the head of the NTSB’s marine safety office questioned whether the USCG had done enough to implement the lessons learned from previous casualties.