NTSB Urges Coast Guard To Require Safety Management Systems (SMS) for Passenger Vessels

Including safety management systems, like those used on airplanes, on all passenger boats could prevent many accident deaths, according to federal experts.

Four years after a deadly boat fire off the coast of California, federal transportation experts are urging the U.S. Coast Guard to put more stringent safety measures in place for passenger vessels.

In a letter (PDF) issued on August 31, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) renewed calls for all passenger vessels to be required to implement a safety management system (SMS), similar to what is used for airplanes, noting that it has been more than 10 years since the recommendations were first made.

The NTSB called on the U.S. Coast Guard to require policy and procedure systems that manage and protect passenger safety within 30 days. The Coast Guard issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking on the SMS requirement in January 2021, but has taken no action since that time, the NTSB noted.

The SMS is an organizational tool that consists of policies, procedures, checklists, and corrective measures designed to manage safety risks to passengers, which the agency has advocated for since 2005. It is commonly used in commercial aviation.

Passenger Vessel Fire Investigation

The call for more safety regulations comes about four years after 34 people died on board the Conception, a dive boat that caught fire and sank off the coast of Santa Barbara in September 2019.

The Conception fire started on the deck and engulfed everything above the waterline. All 33 passengers and one crewmember were trapped in the cabin area below and died of smoke inhalation before the boat sank. The NTSB investigators determined that the emergency exits were inaccessible due to smoke and fire.

The boat sank less than 100 feet away from shore, and the investigation revealed a number of safety problems on the boat, including small escape exits, no secondary escape route, as well as a lack of safety protocols, patrols, and smoke detectors.

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The NTSB recommended the U.S. Coast Guard require a second method for passengers to escape, smoke detectors in all areas of passenger vessels, and that passenger vessel companies implement systems and procedures to prevent further casualties.

According to the board, the U.S. Coast Guard addressed most of its recommendations in December 2021, but did not take on the proposed passenger vessel SMS requirement.

The board concluded that a SMS could have identified fire or other safety risks on the Conception, and could prevent future casualties in passenger vessels.

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