NTSB renews call for US Coast Guard to strengthen passenger vessel safety

NTSB renews call for US Coast Guard to strengthen passenger vessel safety

The dive boat Conception catches fire near Santa Cruz Island in southern California on September 2, 2019. All but five of the 39 people who were on board perished in the tragedy. (Photo: Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office)

​​​Four years after the fire aboard the dive boat Conception claimed 34 lives off the coast of Southern California, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) renewed its call for the US Coast Guard to require safety management systems (SMS) for passenger vessels.

The recommendation, which the NTSB reissued following its investigation of the September 2, 2019, fire aboard Conception, remains open.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy recently sent a letter​ to the Coast Guard Commandant emphasising the need to issue the regulations within 30 days.

The NTSB has advocated for SMS for passenger vessels since 2005, and in 2010, the US Congress explicitly granted the coast guard the authority to require such systems. Progress has been stalled since January 2021 when the coast guard took initial steps to address the NTSB’s recommendation.

An SMS is an enterprise approach to risk management. It is a formal organisational tool, comprising policies, procedures, checklists, and corrective measures to ensure that vessel crews are operating a vessel in accordance with regulations, company requirements and best practices, with a goal of continuous improvement.

The NTSB has recommended SMS in nearly all modes of transportation—aviation, rail and transit, pipelines, and marine—as well as for manufacturers.

In December 2021, the coast guard issued interim rules addressing many of the recommendations the NTSB issued as a result of its investigation of the Conception casualty, but not for the SMS recommendation. The Elijah E. Cummings Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2020 mandates that the coast guard carry out all of the NTSB recommendations issued or reiterated as a result of the Conception investigation.

Conception was anchored in Platts Harbor, off Santa Cruz Island, California, when it caught fire in the early morning (local time) of September 2, 2019. The vessel burned to the waterline and sank less than 100 feet (30 metres) from shore.

All 33 passengers and one crewmember died of smoke inhalation after they were trapped in the berthing area while a fire raged on the deck above. Both exits from the berthing area led to the same fire- and smoke-filled area above.

The NTSB concluded that had an SMS been implemented, Truth Aquatics, owner and operator of Conception, could have identified unsafe practices and fire risks on the vessel and taken corrective action before the casualty occurred.

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