SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The Coast Guard has issued new emergency safety requirements to passenger vessels in the wake of the Labor Day boat fire off Santa Cruz Island that killed 34 people.
The bulletin calls on boat operators nationwide to review safety measures, make sure safety equipment is operational and reduce potential hazards from lithium batteries, power strips and extension cords.
The cause of the worst maritime disaster in recent California history has not been determined. But there have been questions about whether the fire started at a charging station used by passengers for phones and other electronics in the galley or because of some lithium battery malfunction.
Federal investigators from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Coast Guard have spent the last two days searching the Santa Barbara Harbor office of Truth Aquatics, the operator of the dive boat Conception. The FBI on Tuesday also asked the public for any information -- including videos and photos -- about the dive boat.
The fire broke out during a weekend diving expedition, trapping the victims who were sleeping below deck. Five crew members who were on deck at the time were able to escape and said the fire was too intense to get anyone else out.
Investigators have been looking into possible shortcomings in the way the Conception was operated. Law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times last week that a preliminary investigation suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the Conception.
They said the vessel lacked a "roaming night watchman" to remain awake to alert passengers of fire or other danger; some of the surviving crew members told investigators they didn't have adequate training to handle a major emergency; and passengers may not have received thorough safety briefings.
The Coast Guard's new safety requirements instruct the operators of passenger vessels to:
-- Review the routes and conditions listed on a vessel's Certificate of Inspection, including the number of passengers and overnight passengers permitted; ensure crew members are aware of and clearly understand their obligations, including any additional requirements detailed on the certificate.
-- Review emergency duties and responsibilities with the crew to ensure they comprehend and can comply with their obligations in an emergency, to include the passenger safety orientation; ensure emergency escapes are clearly identified, functional and remain clear of objects that may impede egress.
-- Review the vessel log book and ensure records of crew training, emergency drills and equipment maintenance are logged and current. Additionally, it is recommended that the master complete log entries to demonstrate to the Coast Guard that the vessel is operating in compliance with routes and conditions found on the certificate.
-- Ensure all required firefighting and lifesaving equipment is on board and operational.
-- Reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.
-- Review the overall condition of the passenger accommodation spaces and any other space that is readily available to passengers during the voyage for unsafe practices or other hazardous arrangements.
Authorities said it could take a year to complete the investigation. But issuing the safety bulletin was seen as an urgent first step.
"In some instances, our marine casualty boards identify pressing safety issues related to vessel stability, the engine room, or lifesaving and firefighting equipment," the Coast Guard said in a statement. "In those instances, we issue safety alerts or bulletins to ensure a widespread dissemination of the most recent safety guidance."
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