Next week, two years after the catastrophic fire aboard the dive boat Design, the new US Coast Guard rules for small boat safety finally go into effect. While the new regulations are recognized as a step forward, the US Coast Guard has come under heavy criticism from the National Transportation Safety Board and members of US Congress for being slow to act. At a congressional subcommittee hearing in California, the US Coast Guard was criticized for being intransigent in its positions while the agency said it had to be deliberate and consider economic elements in establishing rules.
“It took congressional action to force the hand of the Coast Guard,” said U.S. Representative Salud Carbajal, who chaired the House Subcommittee hearing on the Coast Guard and Shipping on March 21 in California. The purpose of the hearing was to explore the progress of the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act, which came into force in January 2021. The hearing was held a few miles from where the Design decayed and sank killing 34 passengers and crew on September 2, 2019.
Following the 2021 law, new rules will come into effect next week, requiring fire detection systems, dual escape routes from all areas of ships and emergency drills. This is in addition to other Coast Guard efforts, including requiring all small vessels to undergo annual inspections to ensure compliance, one of the areas in which the NTSB and post-fire lawsuits criticized the USCG. for lax inspections. The Coast Guard noted that it has added 126 new marine inspection vessels since 2019.
Despite recent efforts, criticism centered on the slow implementation of recommendations and the Coast Guard’s inability to close safety gaps. The NTSB said it has 19 open recommendations regarding small vessel safety, some dating back 20 years. They noted that they repeatedly reiterated their recommendations citing the many accidents and loss of life on small boats.
“Since 1999, we have investigated three accidents involving passenger ferries in New York, a fatal fire on the small passenger vessel lady of the island in Florida and duck accidents in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Missouri,” National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Including the Designa total of 86 people died in these tragedies.
Among the recommendations made by Homendy, the NTSB includes extending voyage data recorders to small passenger vessels and requiring preventive maintenance programs similar to those required for airplanes. The Coast Guard also admitted that a recommendation for devices to ensure night watchmen remain on duty and patrol small craft will not be fully implemented in current regulations.
Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Mauger responded to the comments, noting the USCG’s enhanced safety programs while saying it’s the responsibility of shipowners to create a culture of safety. He said they would work with ship operators to review their plans next week to show how they will comply with the new requirements and, for example, the USCG would start carrying out spot checks to ensure that watches were maintained on vessels in operation.
Awaiting in the US Congress is a new bill that would overhaul liability issues for small boat owners. The legislation advocated by the families of the victims of the Conception aims to update a 170-year-old law that accesses liability in part on the value of the ship. The families of the Conception victims have also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the US Coast Guard for its failure to enforce safety rules they say led to the disastrous fire.