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Deadly Boating Incidents Have Informed and Accelerated Coast Guard Safety Actions, Admiral Says

The Coast Guard also has been increasing the readiness of the marine inspection workforce after the Conception fire and Stretch Duck 7 sinking.

Recent passenger vessel tragedies have accelerated and guided new safety regulations along with improved development of the maritime inspection workforce, U.S. Coast Guard Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy Rear Admiral John Mauger told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation on Monday.

Thirty-three passengers and one crew member died in a fire aboard the Conception dive boat on Sept. 2, 2019, off the coast of Santa Barbara County in California. The committee’s field hearing was held at Santa Barbara City Hall.

The victims’ families started the group Advocacy 34, which noted in a Facebook post today “the negligence of the owner and captain” of the dive boat, adding that they “still await any accountability as the captain’s trial has been postponed and the owner has yet to be charged by the DOJ.”

On July 19, 2018, the Stretch Duck 7, a World War II-era DUKW amphibious vessel, sank at Table Rock Lake near Branson, Mo., killing 17 people. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the operator failed to heed a severe thunderstorm warning and “contributing to the sinking was the Coast Guard’s failure to require sufficient reserve buoyancy in amphibious vessels.”

“Passenger vessel safety is personal. The fleet of U.S. small passenger vessels carry our families and friends to work and school, and provide once-in-a-lifetime adventures,” Mauger said. “The victims of these two casualties and their families are at the forefront of our minds here in the Coast Guard as we work to strengthen safety standards, enhance oversight, and ensure compliance so that loved ones are transported safely on small passenger vessels.”

The Coast Guard, with support from Congress, “accelerated the development and publication of significant new safety regulations which address all of the contributing factors to the loss of life on board Conception,” he noted.

This upcoming Monday, the interim rule for fire protection on small passenger vessels “will implement key safety provisions to address new requirements in the law” and “substantially increases the safety of small passenger vessels by requiring increased fire detection, increased fire suppression, improved means of escape, safer handling of flammable items, additional crew training, and monitoring of night watches on board vessels,” Mauger said.

“These changes, together with pending safety management system requirements, address all of the NTSB recommendations stemming from the fire on board Conception. These new requirements also reinforce that vessel safety is a shared responsibility between the owner-operator, the captain and crew, and the Coast Guard.”

After the Conception fire, the Coast Guard implemented “a new tiered approach to allocate our most experienced inspectors to the highest priority, small passenger vessel safety inspections.”

“The Coast Guard gathered data from previous inspections, investigations, and subject matter expertise and employed machine learning to gain new insights and prioritize the risks,” Mauger continued. “Under this policy, every small passenger vessel is inspected annually and the highest-priority vessels are inspected more frequently by our most experienced inspectors. This change to our compliance policy has successfully identified and corrected deficiencies, thereby preventing serious consequences.”

The Coast Guard also has been increasing the readiness of the marine inspection workforce. The Fiscal Year 2022 budget request adds 32 billets positioned at sectors, training centers, and force readiness command to ensure that the marine inspection workforce receives continuous training.

“With funding provided through the CARES Act and subsequent fiscal year appropriations, the service is transforming our mobile solutions to make our inspectors and investigators more capable,” Mauger said. “To better train the workforce, the Coast Guard is employing ready learning technology as part of the marine inspection performance support architecture to ensure that marine inspectors have the knowledge, skills that are required to keep pace in this dynamically changing maritime industry.”

National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy told lawmakers that there are currently 19 open NTSB recommendations regarding small passenger vessels. One would require voyage data recorders, which would aid NTSB in investigations much like an aviation black box.

“One of those recommendations would require operators to implement a preventative maintenance program. We issued it 20 years ago,” she said. “Another would require operators to implement a safety management system, which we also issued 20 years ago. We reiterated that in 2012, again in 2018, and again in 2020, following numerous tragedies.”

“We’re pleased the Coast Guard has issued a rule-making to move vessel SMS forward,” Homendy added. “For two decades, we’ve also recommended that the Coast Guard address significant safety issues with duck boats. Had those recommendations been acted upon, following the sinking of MS Majestic in 1999, the tragedy in Branson and the 17 lives lost likely would not have occurred.”

The Coast Guard’s casualty investigation information for both the Conception and Stretch Duck 7 has been referred to the Department of Justice and USCG is awaiting their determination on criminal prosecution.

“But we’re not waiting to make sure that the lessons that we learn from our investigation are applied in the time following both the Conception casualty and the Stretch Duck 7 casualty — we released a policy statement, we changed our compliance procedures, and we set about developing new safety regulations that come into effect next week,” Mauger said. “That makes sure that we strengthen the safety standards, even though our casualty investigation hasn’t yet been concluded.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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