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Fire on MV Conception
MV Conception boat fire – What can we learn from this?
By Admin
November 11, 2019

MV Conception at port

The fatal sinking of MV Conception occurred on September 2, 2019, when the 22.86m (75ft)” live aboard” dive boat caught fire and eventually sank off the coast of Santa Cruz Island, California, United States.  Officials believed that all of the 33 passengers and the one crew-member sleeping below decks had died from smoke inhalation before they were burned or drowned.

MV Conception route

The first reaction of a seafarer when a fire erupts at sea is to prevent it from spreading and extinguish it if possible. An immediate response consisting of proper individual responses, from the time when a fire is discovered, would eliminate indecision and waste of valuable time in the beginning of a fire emergency. Knowing that a fire has not been fought despite the efforts in conducting the immediate response or when it is only discovered at a stage when the individual response may not be helpful, participation of the entire crew in the undertaking of the organisational response becomes necessary to fight the fire. This response consists of different organised procedures led by the Master of the vessel.

MV Conception escape route

There is speculation that there was no crew member on watch and this fire on board came from the accommodation space and not the engine room. Contemporary standards of today are more onerous that they were in the 1970s and 1980s, however we are still using these vessels today in many cases without an upgrade. The MV Conception was built in California, 1981, to accommodate up to 46 people. This is a lot of berthed passengers and crew for a 22m vessel.

MV Conception

The vessel’s electrical system wasn’t built to cope with the way we all use technology today and charge dozens of phones, batteries and cameras.  Those outlets are now the focus of an intense investigation as federal officials try to determine the cause of the worst maritime disaster in modern California history. One of the crew members, Ryan Sims, has filed a lawsuit against the Conception’s owners, alleging the company, Truth Aquatics Inc., Worldwide Diving Adventures and boat owner failed to properly train crew members, give adequate safety or medical equipment and provide safety rules.

Accidents must be investigated and their causes found to prevent the same injuries from happening again to someone else. With all incidents its never just one thing that causes the incident, it is combination of many factors. In the immediate aftermath the investigators have raised questions regarding the following:

  • A Crew member is required to be on watch – when berthed passengers are on board
  • Lack of any fixed smoke detection system.
  • Access to emergency escape
  • Crew training
  • Safety briefings
  • Electrical safety


What can we learn?
A new vessel like this today meeting current NSCV requirements, would be installed with structural fire protection, fixed fire systems, fire detection systems and additional emergency exits. It is possible that a vessel built prior to the USL Code, could operate still today without these measures installed. If a vessel has short comings with meeting contemporary safety requirements, there should be a greater focus on safety management.

Lithium cells and batteries offer many advantages compared to other power sources, however, high-energy devices shall be considered hazardous at all times.

Immediately after the incident, the US Coast Guard issued a Safety Bulletin and this should be a trigger for Australian vessel operators to also consider the following:

  • Review the conditions listed on the vessel’s Certificate of Survey (COS) and Certificate of Operation (COO) including the number of passengers and berthed passengers permitted. Ensure crew-members are aware of and clearly understand their obligations including any additional requirements detailed on the COS and / or COO.
  • Complete a thorough electrical system check and ensure that RCD’s or RCBO’s are installed.
  • Review emergency duties and responsibilities with the crew and any other crew-member 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 that the vessel is operating in compliance with rules and conditions found on the COS and / or COO. (Refer Marine Order 504)
  • Ensure all required firefighting and lifesaving equipment is onboard and operational.
  • Reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and 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.
  • Check the last time that your Gas system was checked by a licensed gas fitter. If you don’t know have it checked in accordance with NSCV C5C.

All of the above measures cannot be feasible or effective unless the available resources and personnel are adequately prepared to carry out such activities in the event of a fire at sea.


How do you charge your phones on board?
Chargers, whether for cameras, laptops, cell phones or tablets, have become a necessity of modern life. The convenience of leaving devices plugged in has made it a common practice. These chargers are constantly drawing power, though not as much as they would if they were turned on. It could lead to a risk of fire either through heat buildup or a short circuit.

The risk results from the way chargers extract their power. Chargers convert alternating current, or AC, to direct current, or DC, from the outlet using transformer circuits. These consist of two coils, one small and one large that loop around and use an electromagnetic field to influence each other. When you unplug your device from the charger, this breaks the circuit on the smaller coil, but the larger coil continues to move electrons. This causes a little bit of power to leak into the charger even if it is not connected to any device. Power can also be drawn out if there is an LED present in the charger, as this causes more resistance.

While pulling power does not cause an immediate danger, the side effects could be enough to cause a spark. The transformer circuit releases heat when converting AC to DC. The heat can slowly accumulate and cause nearby fabric or wood to ignite. Such an incident could be even more likely when a device is actually connected to a charger, as an unconnected charger will not accumulate enough heat for this to happen. That is why it’s safer to charge your devices on cool surfaces and away from flammable objects.

However, chargers not connected to any devices can still pull in power. If there happens to be enough water or moisture in the air, it can short-circuit the transformer. During a short circuit, abnormal connections within the circuit cause an excessive amount of current to pass through the charger, which overheats the circuits and could potentially start a fire.

Perhaps operators should develop a policy regarding charging phones on board.

The importance of checking the condition of personal electrical equipment;

  • Electrical hazards are all around us not just on the vessel but in the office as well. The following points may be useful:
  • all electrical appliances being used should be genuine and in a good working condition
  • plug sockets and extension leads are to be used correctly and not overloaded
  • care should be taken when dealing with different styles of plugs and sockets from different countries
  • ensure all electrical appliances are switched off after use or before leaving the place of work
  • ensure all electrical appliances are clear from any liquid spillage
  • ensure all extension leads are tidy and do not constitute a trip or fall hazard
  • if you notice or suspect any electrical hazard in the work place report it immediately.

Check out the recent IMCA safety flash

Mick Uberti
Maritime Survey Australia


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