Lax fire safety rules for ships built before 1991 may be endangering nearly a quarter-million Americans who take to the sea aboard fishing vessels.

Older commercial fishing vessels are often not required to have fire-resistant construction or carry such items as smoke detectors, fire mails or even fire hoses, the National Transportation Safety Board reported Tuesday."Once again we see in Washington that the greatest enemy of public safety is the grandfather clause," National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall said.

While commercial fishing goes on year-round in many areas, summer is a boom time, especially in Alaska where college students flock to high-paying jobs when they are out of classes. An estimated 230,000 Americans work on fishing vessels off the nation's coasts, the board said.

Reviewing a case from Alaska, the board issued a series of recommendations to the Coast Guard and other regulators that include calling for prompt phasing in of safety requirements for older ships.

The review was prompted by a May 27, 1995, blaze aboard the vessel Alaska Spirit at Seward, Alaska, that killed the captain and did an estimated $3 million in damage to the ship.

The fire apparently began in the cabin of an officer who had gone ashore and left a rice cooker turned on, the board concluded.