Congress Passes New Passenger Vessel Safety Rules

The remains of the dive boat Conception, which burned to the waterline and sank with the loss of 34 lives (Santa Barbara County FD)

Published Dec 6, 2020 11:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Congress is poised to pass new passenger vessel safety regulations that will fill in the gaps revealed by the disastrous Conception dive boat fire in September 2019, one of the worst maritime casualties in the United States in recent memory. 

Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representatives Salud Carbajal and Julia Brownley (D-CA) announced Friday that their bill on fire safety - the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act - has been rolled into the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2021. The NDAA is an 1,800-page omnibus defense bill that authorizes spending for servicemember pay, weapons programs, and a wide array of non-defense policy measures incorporated as amendments. It has passed every year for the last 59 years, and the House and Senate have agreed on this year's final version. 

Feinstein's amendment would require the Secretary of Transportation to formulate new fire safety requirements for small passenger vessels under 100 GT. All are directly targeted at deficiencies identified by an NTSB investigation into the Conception fire, and they include:

  • the addition of interconnected fire detection, protection, and suppression equipment in all areas on board where passengers have access;
  • requirements to increase fire detection, protection, and suppression systems in unmanned machinery areas;
  • requirements for two or more avenues of escape from all common areas for passengers, arranged so that they may not both be blocked in an emergency;
  • increased marine firefighting training for small passenger vessel crew;
  • new rules for the handling of lithium ion batteries and other flammables on small passenger vessels;
  • and extending safety management system (SMS) requirements to cover small passenger vessel operations. 

“My thoughts continue to be with those who lost a loved one in the Conception boat fire. It was a preventable tragedy and, as legislators, we knew we needed to act right away to prevent future loss of life,” said Representative Salud Carbajal (D-CA). “Nothing can ever make up for the loss we experienced that day, but I’m proud to honor the memory of the 34 lives lost by working to make sure a similar tragedy never happens again."

Congress has reached agreement on a final version of the NDAA, and it will head to President Donald Trump's desk for signature or veto shortly. The final version does not include the president's demand to repeal certain legal protections for social media companies and other online forums (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996); he has threatened to veto the full bill if a repeal is not included in the text.