Coast Guard to enact sweeping safety reforms

The burned hulk of the Conception is brought to the surface by a salvage team in the Santa Barbara Channel off of Santa Cruz Island, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2019. Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS

LOS ANGELES — More than a year after the worst maritime disaster in modern California history, the U.S. Coast Guard said it would enact a sweeping series of rules and other reforms designed to make small passenger vessels safer.

The changes come in response to the 2019 Labor Day weekend fire aboard the Conception dive boat off the Channel Islands, which killed 34 people and exposed a series of serious flaws in boat safety later detailed by a series of Los Angeles Times reports and an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The Coast Guard told the NTSB this week that it was agreeing with seven recommendations for major changes, including mandatory checks on roving watches, better smoke detector systems, mandatory safety management systems and improved emergency exits.

The NTSB in October concluded that the Conception’s owner, Truth Aquatics, failed to have effective oversight of the vessel and did not operate a required roving watch that likely would have detected the fire sooner and could have saved lives.

And while placing much of the blame on Truth Aquatics, the agency did not spare the Coast Guard, finding that “contributing to the undetected growth of the fire was the lack of United States Coast Guard regulatory requirements for smoke detectors.”

The Coast Guard, which regulates vessels, had not implemented its prior recommendations for safety management systems despite a decade of calls by the NTSB and had allowed older vessels like the Conception to have poor egress.

Vice Adm. Scott A. Buschman, deputy commandment for USCG Operations, wrote that he concurs with the recommendations that newly constructed and existing small passenger vessels with overnight accommodation should have interconnected smoke detectors. The smoke detectors provision, he noted, was included in legislation enacted last fall in the wake of the tragedy and the Coast Guard “is making new regulation to require interconnected fire detection equipment in all areas where passengers and crew have access.”

The NTSB determined the lack of a roving watch and inadequate smoke detectors aboard the Conception allowed the fire, which began from an undetermined source in the back of the middle deck salon, to burn for several minutes before a crew member sleeping in the wheelhouse atop the three-deck boat was awakened by a pop, crackle and the glow of the flames.

NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said those below deck probably could have escaped if there had been early detection of the blaze.

The NTSB cited the failure by the boat’s captain, Jerry Boylan, and Truth Aquatics to comply with a Coast Guard requirement that it operate a roving watch whenever passengers were below deck. That failure was identified in a Times investigation in 2019, the NTSB board noted Tuesday. Boylan was charged in November with 34 counts of seaman’s manslaughter and has pleaded not guilty. No roving watches were set while in port or at anchor in direct violation of Coast Guard requirements for the Conception, according to NTSB investigators.

The Coast Guard, the NTSB board members noted, did not require logs of roving watches, so no vessel operated since the 1990s has been cited for failing to have one.

Buschman concurred with the NTSB that inspection procedures need to be put in place to verify roving patrols are being conducted on such boats. He said the Coast Guard, in the aftermath of the fire, conducted a “concentrated inspection campaign” of vessels with overnight accommodations and is using that to create an inspection program. Buschman said the Coast Guard has already exercised its existing regulatory authority to mandate the logging of completed night watch patrols, and the provision will be added to boat inspections.

The NTSB panel determined that most of the 33 passengers and one crew member below deck were awake — some with their shoes on — as fire engulfed the vessel about 3 a.m., but could not escape the bunk room and died of smoke inhalation.

Coast Guard officials also agreed with the NTSB that both new and existing vessels with overnight accommodations must have better means of escape.

“Contributing to the high loss of life were the inadequate emergency escape arrangements from the vessel’s bunkroom, as both exited into a compartment that was engulfed in fire, thereby preventing escape,” the NTSB said. The board called for a secondary means of escape into a different space than the primary exit so that no single fire would trap people.

“I concur with the intent of the recommendations. ... The Coast Guard agrees that having independent escape routes exit into different spaces would decrease the possibility of one incident blocking both escapes,” Buschman wrote in response to the NTSB recommendations.

He acknowledged current regulation does not explicitly require that, but noted that the Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act passed last fall requires vessels to have two independent means of escape, and the agency is now setting new rules. He also agreed with the NTSB recommendation that vessels built prior to 1996 have an escape route free from obstructions.

A Times investigation in the aftermath of the disaster revealed the Conception dive boat had been exempted by the U.S. Coast Guard from stricter safety rules designed to make it easier for passengers to escape. It was one of about 325 small passenger vessels built before 1996 and given special exemptions from safety standards that the Coast Guard imposed on new vessels, some of which required larger escape hatches and illuminated exit signs, records show.

In releasing the findings of its investigation, the NTSB reiterated its recommendation that all U.S.-flagged passenger vessels implement safety management systems. Responding last week, Buschman said he agreed “with the intent of the recommendation” and said the Coast Guard is seeking public comment through April on making such a rule. He did note that a voluntary program is currently in place.

Glen Fritzler, the owner of Truth Aquatics, has denied wrongdoing and insisted that a crew member was awake when the fire was detected.

Coast Guard Capt. Jason Neubauer, chairman of the USCG’s Conception Marine Board of Investigation, informed the victims’ families Wednesday in an email of the agency’s response and added that his panel’s work on “the incident remains ongoing and my final report of the investigation will provide additional safety recommendations for consideration by our Commandant.”

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