Less than a year before a fire broke out aboard the Conception diving vessel in California, killing 34 people on Labor Day, a lithium-ion battery aboard another dive boat owned by the same company overheated and smoldered as it was charging.

That incident, witnessed by several people, including some who talked to the Los Angeles Times, underscores the potential dangers lithium-ion batteries pose to boat passengers and points to a possible clue about the Conception fire – one of the deadliest maritime accidents in recent U.S. history.

The Conception was built decades before the advent of lithium-ion batteries and the multitude of devices that rely on them. Passengers of the Vision, a sister vessel owned by the Conception’s owner Truth Aquatics, told the Los Angeles Times that divers typically squabbled over electrical outlets to keep their phones, lights, cameras, underwater scooters, and other diving-related devices charged.

Some passengers brought power strips aboard so they could charge multiple devices on a single outlet. The boat’s owner also made use of extension cords to meet the demand for charging electronic devices during diving expeditions.

Compounding the fire risk, many outlets were located behind foam-filled, L-shaped benches in the salon areas that were often piled up with other equipment and gear.

Although U.S. Coast Guard officials were not alerted to the incident aboard the Vision until after Los Angeles Times reporters asked them about it, the Coast Guard did issue a warning nine days after the deadly Conception fire urging the owners of passenger vessels and their crews “to reduce potential fire hazards and consider limiting the unsupervised charging of lithium-ion batteries and extensive use of power strips and extension cords.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the U.S. Coast Guard, and the FBI continue to investigate the Conception fire. The cause of the fire remains unclear, but investigators uncovered “major breakdowns in required safety procedures” aboard the Conception, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Those lapses included inadequate crew training and the absence of a roving night watch at all times while passenger bunks are occupied to alert passengers below deck of an emergency, the Times reported.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned lithium-ion batteries from the cargo hold of commercial aircraft in 2017, and international regulators have blamed the batteries for at least four deaths and the total loss of four aircraft – triggering new safety regulations globally.

Much of the maritime world, however, has not made any sweeping reforms to address the risk that lithium-ion batteries pose to seagoing vessels. In 2017, the U.S. Navy imposed severe restrictions on lithium-ion batteries, including a 2017 ban on all vaping devices from Navy vessels after the devices sparked numerous fires.

Lithium-ion cells pack a tremendous amount of power for their size, but the only thing properly containing that power is a thin strip of polypropylene to prevent the electrodes from touching. The batteries can overheat and explode if they are overcharged, damaged, defective, or not properly vented while charging.

Lithium-ion batteries that short circuit can release fires that burn at more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit/538 degrees Celsius, making them extremely difficult to extinguish.

Three California members of Congress last week introduced federal safety legislation that would mandate at least two escape exits on smaller passenger vessels, and require commercial boat operators to strengthen fire alarm systems and create rules for the safe handling and storage of phones, cameras and other electronic devices powered by lithium-ion batteries.

In the meantime, passengers who take excursions on dive boats and other passenger vessels should assess these critical safety issues for themselves and go with an operator that has proactively taken safety measures that exceed the basic legal requirements. At Beasley Allen, our lawyers provide decades of experience in maritime law and helping those whose lives have been impacted by boating and shipping accidents.

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