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Top transportation official blasts Coast Guard at Santa Barbara hearing over passenger vessel safety

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Ventura County Fire Department
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The September 2019 dive boat fire in the Channel Islands killed 34 people.

NTSB Chair claims recommendations which weren't implemented might have prevented deaths in disasters like the 2019 Channel Islands dive boat fire.

The deadly 2019 dive boat fire in the Channel Islands which killed 34 people sparked efforts to make safety improvements in passenger vessels, including some taking effect next week.

But, during a congressional hearing in Santa Barbara, the head of the nation’s top transportation safety agencies blasted the Coast Guard. She says it’s failed for years to implement recommendations which would have saved lives.

"There are currently 19 open NTSB recommendations regarding small passenger vessels," said National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy. She says some of those date back two decades.

Homendy was in Santa Barbara for a congressional hearing Monday. It was prompted by two deadly passenger vessel disasters, including the September 2019 dive boat fire in the Channel Islands which killed 34 people.

Homendy says the NTSB, the agency which investigates transportation accidents, has made numerous vessel safety recommendations over the years which have been ignored. She pointed a finger at the Coast Guard.

"It shouldn't take an act of Congress to address known safety issues." said Homendy. She was referring to small passenger safety vessel requirements which came from legislation in the wake of the Conception disaster off the Santa Barbara County coast.

Democratic Congressman Salud Carbajal of Santa Barbara chaired the House Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Subcommittee hearing.

"Updated laws and regulations must be immediately implemented when deficiencies are identified." said Carbajal. "The United States has a history of taking a reactionary approach to safety, creating maritime safety laws after tragedies."

Coast Guard officials say making changes is an involved, and time consuming process which requires public review. U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Mauger is the Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy testified at the hearing. He said rulemaking is a long, difficult public process.

The NTSB investigation into the Conception dive boat disaster in the Channel Islands wasn’t able to make a definitive conclusion as to what sparked the fire. A number of smartphones and cameras which might have overloaded a power strip while charging are suspected. But, the report concluded that having a required night roving patrol by the crew, better fire alarm systems, and improved emergency exits could have prevented the tragedy.

The hearing also focused on safety issues raised by the July 2018 sinking of a so-called duck boat in a lake near Branson, Missouri during a storm. 16 of the 31 people died.

A number of new safety regulations are set to take effect next week. Mauger says they will substantially improve safety. The rules require increased fire detection, increased fire suppression, improved means of escape, safer handling of flammable items, increased crew training, and monitoring of night watches on passenger vessels.

The NTSB Chair says both her agency, and the Coast Guard are underfunded, and need more resources to create safer conditions, and enforce them.

Homendy says more needs to be done. She says she was asked what keeps her up at night.

"It's knowing that we've previously investigated a similar tragedy, and knowing that it could have been prevented," said Homendy.