Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act enacted

The Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 2019, which was introduced after the deadly Conception dive boat fire, was rolled into the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 and enacted with the recent congressional override of President Donald Trump’s veto of the act.

WASHINGTON— The Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 2019, a bill aimed at improving safety aboard small passenger vessels, has now become law. The act was introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representatives Salud Carbajal and Julia Brownley after the deadly Conception dive boat fire off the coast of Santa Barbara.

The Conception, a 75-foot commercial vessel based at 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. One crew member and 33 passengers who were asleep below deck at the time of the fire died.

The Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 2019 was later rolled in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, which authorizes $740.5 billion for national defense spending and sets policies on military compensation, procurement of equipment, operations and training. President Trump vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act in December but Congress overturned the veto, with both the House and Senate voting in favor of the override on Dec. 28 and Jan. 1, respectively.

The Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 2019 directs the Coast Guard to implement safety reforms to small passenger vessels to prevent a similar disaster in the future. The Coast Guard will be required to prescribe additional regulations to secure the safety of individuals and property on board certain small passenger vessels including the addition of interconnected fire detection in all areas to which passengers have access, including dining areas, sleeping quarters, and lounges. The law also requires vessels to have no less than two avenues of escape to different parts of the boat. It also includes requirements for marine firefighting training programs to improve crew member training and proficiency; and mandates safety standards for the handling, storage, and operation of flammable items, such as lithium-ion batteries.

“The Conception boat fire was a tragedy that could have been prevented had stronger safety measures been in place,” Senator Feinstein said in a released statement when the bill was first introduced in December 2019. “We must ensure that small passenger vessels have the right safety measures in place to prevent disasters at sea. This bill addresses the specific conditions that are being investigated as causes of the Conception fire, conditions that exist on hundreds of similar vessels in operation today.”

A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the fire, released after the bill was first introduced, found a lack of U.S. Coast Guard regulations for smoke detection in all accommodation spaces in small vessels with overnight accommodations and the configuration of exits from the bunkroom contributed to the fire and its deadliness.

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