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More than 100 boats in California are exempt from fire safety rules

The remains of the dive-boat Conception. Photo courtesy of the Ventura County Fire Department

The remains of the dive-boat Conception. Photo courtesy of the Ventura County Fire Department

The Conception, the dive boat aboard which 34 people died when it caught fire last Labor Day weekend, was among more than 100 boats registered in California that are exempt from Coast Guard regulations adopted in 1996 to improve passenger safety.

The Los Angeles Times reported that 11 boats classified for diving, including eight in California, were given special exemptions from safety rules that were prompted by a series of fires and other accidents in the previous 30 years. The grandfathering provision meant those boats didn’t have to make such changes as adding larger escape hatches and improving fire-prevention systems.

The paper examined records that showed 322 small passenger vessels nationwide built before 1996 are exempt from those rules, and a third of those boats are based in California.

After the Conception fire, the Coast Guard’s oversight came under scrutiny. The Times reported that the Coast Guard ignored National Transportation Safety Board recommendations to improve fire safety measures for small passenger boats for 20 years. Three members of California’s congressional delegation introduced legislation this month to require those vessels to have at least two escape exits, strengthen standards for fire alarm systems and create mandatory safety rules for the handling and storage of cellphones, cameras and other equipment with lithium-ion batteries.

Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley said in a statement that Congress “must eliminate the hazards posed by boats grandfathered in under outdated safety regulations.”

Democratic Rep. Salud Carbajal called the newspaper’s findings “concerning” and said the old standards “paint a clear picture of why we need immediate action to modernize our regulations. I know we must take the necessary steps to ensure our vessels and waters are safe for all who use them.”

The 1996 rules require vessels to have a single escape hatch at least 32 inches wide and illuminated exit signs. Built in 1981, Conception had a hatch that was 24 inches wide, according to The Times, and did not have illuminated exit signs.

Of the eight dive vessels in Southern California that are exempt from the 1996 rules, five are based in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area, two are in Santa Barbara and one is in San Diego. The newspaper said three boats are based in Florida.

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