Coast Guard May Change Sleeping Rules After The Conception Fire

File: Members of the FBI Evidence Response Team and other officials work in front of the ship Truth, a sister ship of the diving ship Conception, on Sept. 3, 2019 in Santa Barbara. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Coast Guard is considering new safety regulations following last month's dive boat fire that killed 34 people, according to two local dive boat operators who have spoken with agency officials.

"The one thing I can tell you: The cost of diving in California just went up dramatically," Ken Kollwitz, the owner of Channel Island Dive Adventures, told KPCC/LAist.

CHANGING 'DOUBLE BUNKS' TO SINGLE BUNKS

One big change under consideration: People would no longer be allowed to sleep side-by-side in one bed.

People often sleep next to each other on boats that offer a "double-bunk." Kollwitz said the Coast Guard considers that arrangement a safety risk because the beds are against a wall, making it difficult for the person closest to the wall to exit in an emergency.

Making this change would reduce the overnight capacity on Magician, the 65-foot dive boat that Kollwitz charters, from 20 to 14.

"Twenty people to 14, I think you can figure out what's going to happen," he said.

TWO CREW MEMBERS AWAKE AT NIGHT

The Coast Guard is also considering a rule that would require dive boats to have more staff awake when docked or at anchor, according to Kollwitz and Ted Cumming, owner of Cal Boat Diving.

While current regulations require just one crew member to be awake at night, the Coast Guard may now require a captain and a deckhand to be awake at night on The Magician, Kollwitz said.

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board on the fatal Labor Day blaze on the dive boat Conception said no one was standing watch when the fire broke out in the middle of the night.

Magician normally has three captains on board for an overnight trip, Kollwitz said, adding that a requirement to have two people awake instead of one would force him to hire more crew to cover all shifts, which would compel him to raise his prices.

If the rule changes happen, Kollwitz said his price for a two-day boat trip would likely jump nearly 20%.

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

'WE NO LONGER ALLOW OVERNIGHTS'

On Wednesday, a red banner appeared at the top of Cal Boat Diving's website: "Note: we no longer allow overnights."

The company focuses on day trips to the Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands. Cumming said after careful consideration, he's no longer allowing passengers to sleep on his boat Spectre on the night before a trip.

"It's something we've been doing for 30 years," he told KPCC/LAist. "But weighing all of this, everything depends on one human being staying awake for the lives of people staying on board. I've decided that I don't want that gamble."

Kollwitz said the owner of another company, Peace Dive Boat, told him it has also ended the practice of letting people sleep on board before a day trip. KPCC/LAist was unable to reach the company's owner.

Cumming said he's calling nearby hotels to try to negotiate a discount for his customers. He said he's informed people who had already booked upcoming trips, and they've all been "very understanding."

Added Cumming: "I don't think they feel comfortable in a bunk room, either."

NEW SAFETY MEASURES

Cumming said he's stepped up emergency training for his crew. "They're refamiliarizing themselves with firefighting systems, pumps, where everything is on the boat," he said.

"They're getting so that it's automatic rather than hesitate and try to remember what to do."

Kollwitz said the owners of Magician have upgraded its smoke alarms and added new alarms in different parts of the ship. They've also banned large hard dive cases, as they could block escape routes.

Anything with a lithium battery on board The Magician must now be stored in a fireproof container like a Lipo bag, he said, adding that passengers won't be allowed to charge batteries between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Cumming and Kollwitz said the Coast Guard told them it will inspect their boats this month.