Conception-inspired law passed in USA

Conception memorial plaque in Santa Barbara harbour.

The dumping of outgoing President Trump’s veto of the US National Defence Authorisation Act has unblocked the passage of commercial boat-safety legislation that had been introduced after the fatal Conception dive-liveaboard fire off California.

The Small Vessel Safety Act was a part of the overall legislation that was being delayed, but after Congress voted last week to override the presidential veto it passed into law. The US Coast Guard has now been directed to implement the sought-after safety reforms for charter boats.

The cause of the 2019 fire, which killed 34 people on a weekend dive-trip, could not be pinpointed because of the state of the wreck of the Conception when it was recovered, but a number of contributing factors were highlighted by inspection teams.

These included the unmonitored charging of devices using lithium-ion batteries; lack of provision of effective escape routes from the single bunk-room where those who died had all been sleeping; lack of a roving night-watch – neither the captain nor the crew had been awake when the fire broke out; and insufficient crew training or provision of fire-drills.

Older small boats in the USA carrying paying passengers have until now enjoyed numerous exemptions from safety regulations, but the law now in force is designed to cover all vessels regardless of their age.

6 January 2021

It stipulates the fire-protection equipment to be installed and that at least two effective emergency-exit routes should be provided, and requires crew-training and safe battery-charging arrangements. The US Coast Guard is responsible for carrying out regular inspections and enforcing the law.

At the start of December Divernet reported that Conception captain Jerry Boylan had been charged with 34 counts of manslaughter.

The USA’s National Transportation Safety Board has held fleet operator Truth Aquatics responsible for the fatal incident, and the company and its owners Glen & Dana Fritzler are currently facing a battery of lawsuits from families of the dead.