Coast Guard rejected some boat safety recommendations, records show
By MARK PUENTE AND RICHARD WINTON | The Los Angeles Times | Published: November 13, 2019
LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — Several California Congress members are calling for stronger safety measures on passenger vessels in the aftermath of the Conception dive boat fire that killed 34 people on Labor Day — one of the worst maritime disasters in the state's history.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which has the sole authority to mandate safety protocols, has often rejected National Transportation Safety Board recommendations to improve fire-safety measures for nearly 20 years.
As the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation prepares for a Thursday hearing to learn details of the Conception accident, members of California's congressional delegation say it's time for the Coast Guard to consider stronger protections.
"It is clear that serious changes need to be made, and they need to be made as soon as possible," Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) said in a statement. "As we honor the lives of the 34 people who were lost too soon, we must be certain concrete steps are being taken to ensure there are no more victims of tragedies like the Conception fire.
"Congress is holding the hearing that I requested with NTSB and the Coast Guard to get more answers on what happened aboard the Conception. I will be there and I will continue the push for the strong, smart safety regulations our communities need."
Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) said the subcommittee will hear from investigators and regulators, but the final NTSB report and recommendations are not expected to be released for months.
"In my view, it is absolutely clear that more needs to be done to protect the lives and safety of passengers and crew on these small overnight vessels," she said in a statement. "I expect this hearing is only the beginning of our oversight efforts on the Conception tragedy."
The Coast Guard declined to comment on why it had not followed specific NTSB recommendations, but released a statement defending its actions.
"The Coast Guard highly values NTSB's input and recommendations concerning all marine casualty investigations, and we work closely with them to identify ways to improve the safety of the maritime industry," chief spokesperson Lt. Amy Midgett previously told the Times in a statement. "When NTSB makes recommendations, the Coast Guard carefully considers the proposed measures and is required to weigh the benefits and impacts of implementation."
In September, a fire broke out on the Conception during a weekend diving excursion in the Channel Islands, killing everyone who had been sleeping below deck. Since the 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.
A preliminary NTSB investigation found that the Conception had violated a requirement that it have a roving watch during the night, saying the five crew members who survived awoke to discover the flames. The agency also has raised concerns about the functionality of the two exits in the area where passengers slept in stacked bunks beneath the waterline.
The results from the NTSB investigation into the Labor Day disaster could take 18 months to complete. Agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are trying to determine what sparked the blaze.
Glen Fritzler, owner of the dive boat, cautioned against the rush to judge his Truth Aquatics company.
"You must take me as a fool to request me to talk to you who has only gotten the facts wrong and has done nothing but try and destroy my good name," Fritzler said in a statement. "Do your homework in the future before your poison pen releases more disinformation. Remember, not all of the crew was interviewed."
Still, members of the boat industry contend that the Conception fire could finally trigger safety rules that the NTSB has been proposing for years.
In a number of accidents going back almost 20 years, a review of federal records shows the NTSB found that issues such as an electrical malfunction, a poorly maintained fuel line and a failed cooling pump had caused fires aboard small vessels. But the safety panel also concluded that a lack of preventive maintenance and fire training for crew members had contributed to the blazes.
The NTSB 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. This, the NTSB said, would better ensure safety on vessels between Coast Guard inspections, which occur every one to two years.
But the Coast Guard has pushed back on the recommendation, calling it "unnecessarily burdensome and duplicative of existing requirements." The NTSB, an independent federal agency, has no authority to enforce its recommendations, so regulators such as the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration are not bound by them.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), who sits on the subcommittee, said the Coast Guard for too long has ignored the NTSB recommendations after accidents. One issue, he said, is the Coast Guard doesn't have enough inspectors to enforce the kind of improvements sought by the NTSB.
He said he hopes the hearing this week will help change the oversight of the vessels, including raising the possibility of getting states involved in the inspection process. He wondered whether the states could regulate the businesses and then require extensive inspections by the Coast Guard or private firms.
"There are far too many deaths in boating disasters," California's former lieutenant governor said. "The Coast Guard hasn't done the task. The NTSB has said it has got to be done."
Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), a member of the subcommittee, said every recommendation the NTSB makes should seriously be considered for adoption by the relevant agency with the primary and foremost consideration being whether the recommendations make transportation safer.
"One of the primary responsibilities of the National Transportation Safety Board is to recommend safety regulations based on the findings of their investigations," Lowenthal said in a statement. "Over more than five decades, their work has made road, water, and air transportation decidedly safer. But too often, their recommendations have not been adopted by the relevant agency."