Hstoday GAO: Enforcement of Egress Requirements for Historic Wood Sailing Vessels

In the wake of the tragic 2019 Conception boat fire off the California coast that claimed 34 lives, the U.S. Coast Guard has been actively working to enhance safety regulations for small passenger vessels. Specifically, the incident prompted a reassessment of egress requirements, with a focus on ensuring that passengers and crew can safely exit vessels during emergencies.

The evolution and enforcement of these safety measures are explored in a comprehensive Q&A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The report sheds light on the gradual strengthening of egress requirements, particularly for wood sailing vessels, and the challenges and considerations associated with compliance.

One pivotal development was the issuance of a 2021 interim rule by the Coast Guard, responding to statutory mandates. This rule mandated that small passenger vessels with overnight accommodations for passengers, excluding ferries, adhere to more stringent egress requirements by December 27, 2023. The urgency to implement these measures was underscored by the Conception incident, where both exits from below-deck bunks led into the fire, contributing to the tragic outcome.

A significant aspect of the report focuses on wood sailing vessels, often deemed as historic entities. GAO identified 27 vessels falling under the definition of “wood sailing vessels,” though none met all the criteria for a “historic wood sailing vessel.” These vessels represent a fraction of the total vessels (308) required to comply with the egress requirements outlined in the 2021 interim rule.

GAO’s comprehensive review delves into Coast Guard marine casualty reports from January 2013 to July 2023. The findings reveal that while some wood sailing vessels were involved in incidents during this period, none resulted in significant damage or fatalities. Additionally, safety inspection data highlighted 42 deficiencies related to egress, with the majority linked to the proper labeling of exits.

The report also underlines the challenge of assessing the feasibility of wood sailing vessels complying with the 2021 interim rule. The unique characteristics of each vessel make it difficult to determine the extent of modifications required. Initially, stakeholders expressed concerns about feasibility, with variations anticipated across different vessels.

However, a significant development came in October 2023 when the Coast Guard issued a policy letter providing clarity on the enforcement of egress requirements. This letter addressed the level of discretion granted to authorized field personnel during enforcement, potentially mitigating concerns about significant modifications. Stakeholders and Coast Guard field personnel indicated that the clarification would likely facilitate compliance without requiring extensive alterations to wood sailing vessels.

Despite these positive steps, the policy letter has a defined expiration date, aligning with the expected issuance of the final rule in November 2024. The report serves as a valuable resource, not only documenting the changes in egress requirements but also examining the safety considerations and feasibility challenges associated with historic wood sailing vessels. As maritime safety remains a priority, ongoing collaboration between stakeholders and regulatory authorities will be crucial to ensuring the effective implementation of enhanced safety measures across diverse vessel types.

Read the full GAO report here.

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