Coast Guard Bulletin Cautions Dive Ships and Small Passenger Vessels to Limit Charging Stations for Lithium Batteries

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In the aftermath of the dive ship Conception tragedy, the US Coast Guard has issued a Marine Safety Information Bulletin (MSIB) to owners and operators of small passenger vessels warning them, among other things, to keep a close watch on battery charging stations.

“The Coast Guard and the maritime industry do not have to delay until the MBI (Marine Board of Investigation) has completed their investigation before taking immediate and positive action,” the bulletin from the Coast Guard Commandant said.

Prominent among the recommendations is this one:

Reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.

Dive Boat Conception

The bulletin also recommends that all crew be made familiar with emergency procedures — exercises the National Transportation Board for fifteen years has recommended be required by the Coast Guard.

But the memo was silent on another major NTSB criticism of the Coast Guard — the lack of required preventive maintenance on hard-to-reach machinery. Fires in such areas have decimated at least two small passenger ships similar to Conception, the most recent occurring in January 2018 claiming the life of one passenger on a casino shuttle.

The NTSB has recommended that small passenger ship operators be required to undertake preventive maintenance of machinery and electrical wiring in hard-to-reach areas of the ship. The Coast Guard Bulletin made no direct mention of preventive maintenance in such areas even as a recommended procedure.

While it’s far too early to determine causes of the fire that killed more than 30 on September 2 off the California coast, speculation has focused on the charging stations for several reasons.

Modern divers run on batteries. Most have laptops, video cameras, still cameras, meters and lights that need to be charged and recharged, often after each dive.

Moreover, lithium batteries sometimes pose a fire and explosion threat, as does possible short circuiting or overheating associated with battery charging.

Fires started in hard-to-reach areas have engulfed two small passenger ships in the past, one through overheating that set the ship on fire, the other through a ruptured fuel line that atomized diesel throughout the lower areas of the deck before autoigniting.

The memo’s recommendations follow:

  •   Review the routes and conditions listed on the vessel’s Certificate of Inspection (COI) including the number of passengers and overnight passengers permitted. Ensure crewmembers are aware of and clearly understand their obligations including any additional requirements detailed on the COI.
  •   Review emergency duties and responsibilities with the crew and any other crewmember in a safety sensitive position to ensure they comprehend and can comply with their obligations in an emergency to include the passenger safety orientation. Ensure emergency escapes are clearly identified, functional, and remain clear of objects that may impede egress.
  •   Review the vessel log book and ensure records of crew training, emergency drills, and equipment maintenance are logged and current. Additionally, it is recommended that the master complete log entries to demonstrate to the Coast Guard that the vessel is operating in compliance with routes and conditions found on the COI.
  •   Ensure all required firefighting and lifesaving equipment is onboard and operational.
  •   Reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteriesand extensive use of power strips and extension cords.
  •   Review the overall condition of the passenger accommodation spaces and any other space that is readily available to passengers during the voyage for unsafe practices or other hazardous arrangements.

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