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January 2020    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 46, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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U.S. Coast Guard Regulations under Criticism in Wake of the Conception Tragedy

from the January, 2020 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The Conception liveaboard fire, the worst in recent American maritime history, shook up the diving world. But, now people are wondering whether the tragedy could have been prevented had the Coast Guard not ignored new safety recommendations.

With the finger pointed at charging lithium-ion batteries as a possible source of the fire, the Los Angeles Times reported that a year before, a battery caught fire on the Vision, a sister vessel of Conception. When a battery started to smolder, a crewmember tossed it into the water to prevent the fire from spreading.

This fire underscored the dangers of such batteries, which have now been banned from the cargo areas of commercial planes -- and have been subject to tighter regulations by the U.S. Navy since 2008, when lithium-ion batteries being charged caused a blaze aboard a SEAL mini-submarine in Pearl Harbor. The FAA has logged 252 cases in which batteries caught fire between 2006 and October 2019.

But restrictions on devices that use lithium-ion batteries had not been extended to passenger boats. The U.S. Coast Guard didn't sound the alarm about the fire risks of batteries until after the Conception disaster.

"In hindsight, it would have been nice to know about [the Vision fire]" Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Kroll told the Los Angeles Times.

Glen Fritzler, owner of Truth Aquatics (the Conception's and Vision's mother company), believes batteries caused the fire and says they were never warned of the danger (but is reported to have declined to comment on why his company did not report the earlier incident to the authorities). Operators are not required to report fires that cause less than $75,000 in damage.

Divers who had previously traveled on Conception recalled how, with up to 40 passengers on board, they often angled for the limited number of charging outlets nestled behind foam-filled benches in the salon, and that numerous extension cords were used to handle the demand to charge various devices.

The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly called for improvements in fire-safety measures, prompted by numerous small passenger vessels having gone up in flames. However, according to a Los Angeles Times review of federal documents spanning the last 20 years reveals the U.S. Coast Guard, which has the sole authority to mandate safety measures, has often rejected the NTSB's recommendations.

The NTSB had found issues with electricity malfunctions, poorly maintained fuel lines, and failing cooling pumps and concluded that the lack of preventive maintenance and fire-training for crew had contributed to blazes recorded. It repeatedly has called on the Coast Guard to require small vessels to establish procedures for conducting regular inspections and reporting maintenance and repair needs for all of a boat's systems -- including the hull and mechanical and electrical operations.

"Since the Conception accident, investigators have cited some of the same deficiencies pointed out by the NTSB in other boat fires: lack of crew training and inadequate safety measures and maintenance" (Los Angeles Times).

The preliminary NTSB investigation found that the operator of the Conception violated the requirement to have a roving watch during the night and raised concerns about the functionality of the two exit routes in the bunkroom where passengers slept, below the waterline in stacked bunks. Even so, the vessel passed the Coast Guard inspection.

The conflict between the Coast Guard and the NTSB reached a crescendo in 2016 when the NTSB scolded the Coast Guard in a letter for failing to adopt 25 out of 40 safety recommendations. There is a growing belief throughout the American boat industry that, after the tragic death of 34 passengers, safety rules proposed by the NTSB might finally be implemented.

Nine days after the Conception fire, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin for passenger vessels, instructing boat operators to reduce potential hazards from lithium batteries, power strips, and extension cords.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and California Reps. Salud Carbajal and Julia Brownley, on December 12, proposed sweeping boat safety legislation in the wake of the Conception fire. The legislation would require small passenger vessels to have at least two escape exits, strengthen standards for fire alarm systems, and create mandatory safety rules for the handling and storage of phones, cameras and other electronic devices with lithium-ion batteries.

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