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Boat fire: Coast Guard will reconsider ship safety improvements that were previously rejected

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Days after the Los Angeles Times reported that the US Coast Guard had rejected federal recommendations that could help prevent boat tragedies, a Coast Guard leader said the agency would reconsider the measures taken by 34 people in the aftermath of Labor Day killed the Conception submarine.

On Thursday, a House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation interviewed the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board on passenger safety on waterways.

At the start of the hearing, several congressmen said they had difficulty hearing from the Times survey that the Coast Guard had often ignored NTSB's safety recommendations to improve fire safety measures for nearly 20 years. The coastguard has the exclusive authority to impose safety protocols on ships.

"The United States has a history of a reactionary approach to safety, drawing up maritime safety laws that follow tragedy rather than preventively reinforcing safety requirements for a more robust fleet, one that is effectively regulated and inspected," said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (DN.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee.

“The Coast Guard's repeated failure to embrace and follow the NTSB recommendations on passenger ships has emerged as a continuing common thread in recent maritime casualties. Recommendations from previous victims keep coming back in later accidents, and yet the coast guard refuses to act. "

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), Chairman of the House Commission for Transport and Infrastructure, said: "the sea remains a relentless threat, one that can strike without warning, without mercy and at any time."

"There is an old saying that all coast guard safety regulations are written in blood because every new regulation reflects the lessons learned from the last disaster at sea," he said.

“The reality is that we can never eliminate the risks of going to sea. What we can do, however, is to remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that those who go to sea do so on ships that are built, maintained and operated as safely as possible. We all have to keep that promise. & # 39;

For years, the NTSB has repeatedly called on the Coast Guard to oblige small vessels to establish procedures for conducting regular inspections and reporting maintenance and repair needs for all systems of a boat – including the hull and mechanical and electrical work.

But the coast guard has pushed back the recommendation and called it "unnecessarily cumbersome and duplication of existing requirements."

Back adm Richard Timme, assistant commander for prevention policy, said the coast guard has set up a task force to inspect ships similar to the conception and suggest what should be adopted immediately to protect passengers. He promised that the agency will not wait until an investigation is completed before new measures are taken.

“To that end, the coastguard will strive to improve continuously. We will get better, & Timme told the panel. “We will carefully examine the findings of all investigations into marine accidents to improve that framework. We will fully fulfill our legal oversight role to keep the maritime public safe. It is my priority. & # 39;

The NTSB, an independent federal agency, has no authority to enforce its recommendations, so regulators such as the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration are not bound by this.

Brian Curtis, the NTSB Director of the Maritime Safety Office, repeated the recommendations of the Coastguard Board to oblige smaller passenger ships to make preventive and comprehensive safety programs.

"All passenger ships must implement a safety management system," he told the panel. The system "is essential for improving safety on board passenger ships."

Maloney said he shares the NTSB's concerns. “Recent accidents on small passenger ships show that poor preventive maintenance, lax fire prevention and insufficient crew training all continue to contribute to calamities. The coast guard makes a critical mistake by not acting more assertively on these recommendations.

Representative Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) thanked the coastguard for helping with the concept fire and wondered why the agency repeatedly ignored the NTSB recommendations.

"If you look at the track record of implementing the NTSB recommendations, this is not a good track record," Carbajal said. “Over the years, we see tragedy after tragedy happening after tragedy, and the coast guard has a record of inactivity. I am disturbed by part of the reporting after this tragedy. "

He then asked Timme to explain why the coast guard did not approve NTSB recommendations.

Timme said that as soon as the coast guard task force reports its findings to him, he will consider what "should change in the safety framework, including rules and policies regarding these passenger ships."

"That includes reviewing the NTSB's recommendations regarding that," Timme told Carbajal.

Timme did not provide a timetable for when the coast guard can accept changes.

In September a fire broke out on the Conception during a weekend dive excursion on the Channel Islands, Kill everyone who had slept downstairs. Since the accident, researchers have cited some of the same shortcomings that the NTSB cited for other boat fires: lack of crew training and insufficient safety measures and maintenance.

A preliminary NTSB investigation revealed that the Conception had violated a requirement that it had a wandering watch at night, in which it was said that the five crew members who survived woke up to discover the flames. The agency has also expressed concern about the functionality of the two exits in the area where passengers slept in stacked bunk beds below the waterline.

The results of the NTSB study on Labor Day disaster can take 18 months to complete. FBI agents and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are trying to figure out what caused the fire.

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