New U.S. Coast Guard policy and NTSB recommendations you should probably apply to your own operations even if you are not operating in the USA
In September 2019, off the coast of California, a fire aboard the MV Conception, a 23-meter (75-foot) scuba diving liveaboard, broke out during the night, killing 33 passengers and one crew member. The captain and four crew members barely escaped. After more than a year of speculations and rumors, the NTSB (the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board) published the results of its investigation and the U.S. Coast Guard issued a new policy on a few topics, including the charging of lithium-ion batteries aboard small vessels and liveaboards.
What Dive Boat Operators Should Do
Whether you operate your dive boat or liveaboard in the USA or not, you should take note and modify your operations, accordingly. Scuba diving is, by definition, an international activity. Your scuba diving clients will expect to see you following these more demanding safety guidelines and policies. And… I assume you don’t want your liveaboard to be next in the news with the words ‘fire’ and ‘death’ in the title, right?
What Scuba Diving Passengers Should Do
It’s your life! Be patient and find ways to adapt. For instance, as we will see below, charging your batteries at night, unattended, all night, is a thing of the past. Do not yell at the crew and, better yet, help the crew in implementing these changes.
So… What Happened?
Before we get into the recommendations and policy, let’s quickly summarize what happened, so we can understand how to prevent it from re-occurring.
The exact ‘source of the ignition’ of the fire could not be determined but we know the fire started in the salon on the main deck where batteries were being recharged at night. The fire was not immediately detected because there were no smoke or heat detectors in this area.
Victims were asleep underneath that area. As required by regulations, there were fire detectors in the sleeping bunk. But since smoke goes up, the fire would most likely have to be very well developed before the smoke alarms in the lower deck could have gone on.
Both exits out of the sleeping room deck lead to the same space where a fire was raging. One of the 2 exits was extremely difficult to use.
Although all of these issues are concerning, they were not illegal. That’s why the NTSB (National Transporation Safety Board in the USA) recommended changes to regulations.
The Real Cause
For the NTSB board members, the fire was not “the cause” of the tragedy. There can always be a fire, for one reason or another. What was of interest to the NTSB was the inability at reacting fast enough to evacuate passengers, which was directly linked to the lack of a roving patrol at night.
It is required, by law, to have a roving patrol all night while passengers are asleep. There was no patrol. All crew members were asleep, just like the passengers.
The NTSB also pointed out the general lack of safety oversight by Truth Aquatics, the company operating The Conception.
Therefore, as far as the NTSB is concerned, the real cause of the tragedy (high loss of life) is “the failure of Truth Aquatics to provide effective oversight of its vessel and crew member operations, including requirements to ensure that a roving patrol was maintained, which allowed a fire of unknown cause to grow, undetected in the vicinity of the aft salon on the main deck.”
In fact, one of the NTSB board member, Jennifer Homendy, stated: “I hate the term accident in this case because, in my opinion, it is not an accident if you fail to operate your company safely.”
The Conception’s burned hull at dawn on Sept. 2, 2019, prior to sinking (source: Ventura County Fire Department via NTSB)
So… Now, What?
It is unfortunate that humans typically wait for a tragedy before improving safety, but here we are. The NTSB issued a series of recommendations on October 20, 2020; with the U.S. Coast Goard following with a new policy on October 29, 2020. Here is what we consider to be the highlights of these recommendations and policies. (Disclaimer: The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.)
- Charging stations should be single outlet use without linking or combining together multiple power strips or extension cords (“daisy chains”). That may be a requirement hard to meet when you have 20 passengers with 3 rechargeable devices, each. But safety comes first!
- Lithium-powered devices and batteries should be removed from the charger once they are fully charged. This rules out overnight charging since you wouldn’t be awake to unplug your device once it is fully charged. Perhaps the night roving patrol can help on that front.
The U.S. Coast Guard recommends that during the safety briefing, passengers be “advised of safe charging locations and any Li-ion battery restrictions on board. This may include procedures for passengers to immediately stow portable batteries upon embarkation in designated locations and for the crew to verify that batteries brought on board meet an applicable UL standard.”
A crew member must be awake at all times which includes the need for a roving watchman, all night. It is expected that your company maintains a safety management system (SMS). Hoping that everything will turn out OK is not a proper way of managing a scuba diving operation. The NTSB board was particularly not impressed with Truth Aquatics’ safety management stating that “the perceived 30-year safety record of the boat’s owner, Truth Aquatics, was, in fact, nothing more than a record of good luck.”
What should I do as a scuba diver?
As we’ve seen above, the operator of the dive boat you are boarding is responsible for your safety. However, if that operator fails to do it properly, you are the one who may end up dead. Therefore, you may want to take note of the recommendations presented above and ensure they are being implemented aboard the next dive boat you will use for a giant-stride entry into the underwater world.
If the dive boat operator doesn’t follow the recommendations and policy presented above, I would request to offboard. I have only one life while there are many dive boats I can choose from!
Be safe! Have fun.
I hate the term accident in this case because, in my opinion, it is not an accident if you fail to operate your company safely