Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act would require two escape routes for people below decks

Members of the California congressional delegation are proposing tougher safety standards for small boats in the wake of a fire aboard a dive boat charter that killed 34 people.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, announced Thursday the introduction of the Small Passenger Vessel Safety Act that would, among other things, require two escape routes for people below decks, leading to different parts of the boat, according to the Associated Press.

Five crew members, including the captain, who were sleeping on deck managed to escape the 75ft Conception, which burned to the waterline September 2, killing one crew member and 33 passengers.

The Conception had stairs leading onto the deck and a small emergency hatch. But the National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report indicates passengers who were asleep in bunks were trapped by flames that kept them from escaping or crew members from reaching them. They all died of smoke inhalation.

The bill also would add stricter fire alarms and fire suppression equipment requiremnts and would set safety standards for handling devices such as cameras and laptop computers that are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which can overheat and spark fires.

Following the Conception fire, the US Coast Guard issued a safety bulletin that suggested boaters limit charging of such batteries, though the cause of the fire remains under investighation.

The Conception was built in 1981 and was among more than 300 small vessels exempted from safety rules that required new vessels to have larger escape hatches with illuminated exit signs, the Los Angeles Times reported last month.

No one can say whether such measures would have made a difference on the Conception but the safety bill would extend its new requirements to older boats.