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Rep. Carbajal Introduces ‘Conception’ Boat Safety Bill

Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act Proposes New Regulations Following Deadly Santa Barbara Disaster

Conception boat fire off Santa Cruz Island | Credit: Santa Barbara County FIre Department

Santa Barbara’s U.S. legislator Salud Carbajal proposes new regulations for small passenger boats like the Conception, aimed to prevent fires like the deadly conflagration that broke out aboard that vessel on Labor Day weekend. In a November hearing on boating safety, Coast Guard Rear Admiral Richard Timme said the service recognized the outdated safety requirements for older passenger vessels, but merely answered Carbajal’s insistence on improved safety rules with a “We will look at that.”

Rep. Carbajal’s bill, authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and also introduced in the House by Rep. Julia Brownley of Ventura County, addresses issues widely implicated in the Conception blaze in which 34 people died while bunked below decks — limited safety measures that were “grandfathered in” by the age of the ship. “[W]e must no longer allow older vessels to operate under antiquated regulations at the expense of our public safety,” Carbajal said in a press release.

The proposed Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 2019 requires such boats to have at least two means of escape to different parts of the vessel, mandates safety standards for handling and storing devices like lithium-ion batteries, and establishes increased standards for fire alarm systems that are connected to one another. The requirements include fire extinguishers in dining, sleeping, and lounge areas, and fire detection and suppression systems in unmanned areas with heat sources like machinery.

“While we await NTSB’s [National Safety Transportation Board’s] final report on the Conception incident,” said Rep. Brownley, “it is abundantly clear that Congress must take immediate action to address safety hazards on older boats, which were grandfathered-in and exempted from newer safety rules.”

Carbajal added, “Our bill to modernize maritime safety is not only practical, it’s imperative. Over the years, we have seen enough evidence from previous disasters and other investigations to know that the time to put safety first is long overdue.”

Correction: This story was corrected on Dec. 16 to note that Sen. Feinstein authored the bill, and its companion bill was introduced in the House by Reps Carbajal and Brownley.

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