Remarks of Carol J. Carmody
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
for AAAE Public Relations and Crisis Management Workshop
New Orleans, Louisiana
October 13, 2003

 


I appreciate being invited to join you here today to discuss an issue of importance to all of us in the aviation community -- the future of family assistance and emergency response in the modern world. Indeed, I was pleased to receive the invitation to this workshop because it indicates how much progress we've made in a relatively short period of time. It has only been seven years since we began to truly focus our collective attention -- and resources -- on the needs and concerns of transportation accident victims' families. Now, we're looking forward -- to how we can prepare better for the future. First let me review how we got here.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was established in 1967 as an independent federal agency to investigate all civil aviation accidents in the United States and all major accidents in the surface modes -- marine, highway, railroad and pipeline. We also conduct safety studies on issues of national significance such as personal watercraft safety and operator fatigue. Based on these investigations and studies, the Board makes recommendations to prevent similar accidents from recurring. Taking care of the families of victims wasn't in our mandate - in fact, it wasn't in anyone's jurisdiction. No one took responsibility.

And there were horror stories. In particular, after a series of aircraft crashes in the early nineties, a number of family members became more vocal about their experiences. They told of continuous busy signals from the airline's 800 accident information number, the lack of information on details of the crash, untimely notifications, misidentified remains, mishandled personal effects, unidentified remains not handled with dignity, and the use of confidential information in the litigation that inevitably followed. In short, at a time when they most needed help, they got nothing. No wonder so many felt abandoned and abused. Their feelings were not unique; we soon found that family members from almost every other accident shared them.

Congress responded to those concerns in 1996 by passing the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act - making the Board the lead federal agency for coordinating federal assets at accident scenes. It also gave the Board the authority to bring together federal, state, and local government agencies to assist transportation accident victims and their families.

The act required the U.S. airline industry to take specific steps to mitigate the effects of an airline disaster on the victims' families. All domestic airlines must have a plan in place, and on file with the Department of Transportation (DOT), to efficiently respond to such tragedies. The plan must address how an airline will provide a reliable toll-free telephone number for families, train its staff to answer family inquiries, provide timely notification to the families, and secure a facility to establish a family assistance center.

I have seen the program at work now in several crashes, and let me tell you, it works. And I have heard from family members at the scene and later how much they value the information, treatment and consideration shown them at a nightmarish time in their lives.

Following a crash in Guam, we realized that foreign air carriers flying in and out of the United States were not covered by the 1996 legislation. As a result, Congress passed the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997 that required foreign carriers serving the United States to develop family assistance plans and fulfill the same requirements as U.S. domestic airlines.

One of the Board's former Chairmen, Jim Hall, believed so much in the effectiveness of the family assistance program that, in 1998, he participated as part of the U.S. delegation to the triennial Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization, and offered a U. S. resolution urging countries to develop family assistance programs. Since that resolution passed, a number of countries have developed similar assistance programs to address the needs of families.

The 1996 and 1997 acts have helped ensure that all victims and their families are fairly treated regardless of the carrier they use. And, they have required carriers that had not previously thought about family assistance issues to actively consider them in their planning.

Although, the two Congressional acts did not require airports to take any specific actions to assist victims' families following an accident, many airport managers and airport rescue and firefighting commanders have told us that they have developed family assistance response plans to assist family members who might come to the airport -- as many do -- following a crash. In fact, many airports have been working with the Board's Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance (TDA), formerly the Office of Family Affairs, to develop programs with local communities to provide services until airline and federal resources can arrive on scene.

Following a 1999 crash at the Little Rock airport, it became even more apparent that airports needed to be better prepared to assist survivors and family members. So, in September 1999, the FAA issued an airport emergency plan advisory circular listing areas for airports to consider to improve their ability to assist family members. These areas include:

  • mutual aid agreements among the airlines at the airport;
  • additional coordination with local emergency services;
  • pre-determined location for a "Friends and Relatives" reception area in the terminal;
  • improved information flow between the affected airline and the airport;
  • terminal access for airline employees during an emergency; and
  • plans to assist non-tenant airlines involved in a disaster.

While many airports have started this work on their own, the TDA staff is currently developing a program specifically designed to help them. This program, which we will initiate by the end of the year, will identify about five airports that are interested in beginning or furthering their family assistance initiative and that have unique requirements - airports with a large number of charter operators, or airports with a large number of international flights, for example; in short, a airport where it might be necessary to step up if there is an aviation accident . As part of this program, the TDA staff will meet with airport personnel and other stakeholders to tailor the plan specifically to meet their needs. The process may take up to a year to complete. And, we want to include as many stakeholders as possible in the meetings, training and exercises to ensure that everyone is prepared to respond to the victims' families when they're needed. Once we complete the pilot program, we'll open the program up to other interested airports.

As I said earlier, some of you may have already worked - or are working -- with the TDA staff or know of them. If you haven't - I hope you will take the opportunity to contact them - before you need their services. The office was formed in 1996 to coordinate and integrate the major resources of the federal government and other organizations, and to work with the local and state government and the airline to meet the needs of aviation disaster victims and their families. The staff helps coordinate family counseling, victim identification and forensic services, communications with foreign governments, and translation services.

The small staff of five people is impressive. They coordinate assistance, provide information, facilitate victim identification and recovery, and work to ensure that families receive courteous, sensitive treatment and the assistance necessary to meet their needs. In the seven years since the office was established, the staff has been launched not only to major aviation disasters, but also to numerous railroad, highway, marine, and pipeline accidents. They have encouraged a collaborative partnership between industry, government and private non-profit organizations to ensure that victims' families receive assistance.

We have learned through experience that no one person or agency can manage these catastrophic events alone. This was evident in the days and weeks following the January 2000 crash of Alaska Air flight 261. In the aftermath of that accident, 73 agencies stepped forward to offer their services -- every one of them with a special area of expertise. Although this accident involved a major U.S. air carrier, in a major city, a similar accident could happen at any time -- anywhere in any town or city. Think about that. Are you prepared to meet the needs of several hundred family members? Can you manage the services of multiple agencies that want to provide services? Are your plans in place? Have they been tested? Are your people trained? Is the necessary coordination in place?

The work of providing assistance to victims and their family members affected by a major transportation disaster is a continually evolving process. In the past seven years, we have made tremendous strides as evidenced by the responses to Swissair flight 111, Egypt Air flight 990, Alaska Airlines flight 261, American Airlines flight 587, and US Airways flight 5481. However, we still have a great deal of work to do.

For example, while the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act is clear regarding the responsibilities of the air carrier in the immediate aftermath of the accident, there is less clarity in the later phases of the investigation. Recent experiences have shown us that the working relationship between the NTSB staff and the air carrier in support of family members remains critical throughout the Board's investigative process.

Family members have indicated that support provided by the air carriers has been very helpful: support such as providing assistance for the one year memorial service, providing for the viewing of the wreckage, or sponsoring a remote satellite viewing location near their home to allow them to observe the Board's proceedings.

Providing accurate and timely information to family members is critical to their understanding of the accident. Although the Board has the primary responsibility for ensuring that that occurs throughout the investigation from our initial on-scene presence at the accident site until the final Board meeting -- we need the airlines' help to do that in the most responsible, effective way possible. Family members want to attend our hearings and Board meetings. Many are unable to because of the travel involved. Providing transportation assistance or a satellite feed allows those families to participate in the process. While there is no legislative mandate for airlines to provide assistance to the families during Board proceedings - at least not yet - but it makes sense to try to accommodate the families in their wish to be informed.

On this subject, let me tell you about some of the difficulties family members and NTSB encountered last year during the American 587 hearing, which I chaired. We had suggested to American that they provide a satellite broadcast of the hearing for the family members, almost all of whom were in New York and Spanish speaking. American chose not to do so, and the families contacted their Congessional representatives. There were several attempts to arrange a webcast for the families at a central location, and a request was made for NTSB staff to attend and explain the hearing. These arrangements never were realized and a few days before the hearing , American decided to provide 20 tickets a day for people to attend the hearing. This caused even more difficulties because we were then faced with different groups of Spanish speaking people attending each day, with little knowledge or understanding of what was going on or what had transpired. The last day another group - and it was not clear that all were family members - chartered a bus to come down, and arrived just after we had concluded the hearing. None of this was conducive to helping family members understand our process. As I say, a case study in what not to do. As a result of the circumstances I have described, there is legislation pending which would require the air carrier to provide satellite coverage for families at the points of origin and destination.

Similarly, if a crash occurs on or near your airport, we need your assistance to ensure that the families are taken care of - especially through the on- scene investigative process. If the situation arises, I encourage all of you to coordinate with the TDA staff to ensure that everyone's interests, especially those of the family members, are considered. It really is in everyone's best interest to keep the needs of the families in mind throughout this lengthy and difficult process. Doing so will allow us to avoid unnecessary and unpleasant situations -- for the airline, for your airport, for the Board, and most especially, for the families.

The events of September 11, 2001 clearly demonstrated that we must continue our efforts to be prepared for whatever might happen -- wherever it might happen. On the morning of September 11, when I got the first call about a jet hitting a building in New York, I assumed I would be heading up there with a go-team. Within minutes, after the second plane struck, I realized this was not likely to be an NTSB investigation. The FBI Director called and I immediately went to his office, arriving just as the building was being evacuated and reports were coming in that the Pentagon had been hit. We were also receiving minute-by-minute bulletins about the plane in Pennsylvania.

I left to return to headquarters and assured Director Mueller that we would assist in any way we could, but that it was obvious these were not accidents. No sooner had I reached my office than he called, asking if we could send some people to help find the black boxes and help identify aircraft parts. We dispatched teams immediately to Pennsylvania, New York and across the river to the Pentagon. We were able to recover cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders from the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. Our experts read out the recorders and provided the information to the FBI for their use in the investigation. Our investigators stayed in New York for several months working both at Ground Zero as well as at the Freshkill site where the debris was taken to be sorted.

In addition to the technical experts, we also dispatched teams from our then-named Family Affairs office to each crash site -- and they remained there for weeks -- helping family members, assisting in the identification process, doing whatever they could to assist the FBI, the Department of Defense, and local authorities. Although the 1996 act defines an aviation accident as any aviation disaster without regard to cause or suspected cause and required the Board to respond -- we would have under any circumstances -- it was the right thing to do.

Fortunately, surviving family members were able to receive the support and assistance they needed because of the strong partnerships that had been forged long before these events occurred. We all must continue to work together -- local communities, the air carriers, the airports, others in the aviation community, and the federal government to ensure that we are prepared for the next disaster.

To that end, the Board is developing a number of training courses at the NTSB Academy on family assistance issues. In December 2001, the Board's TDA staff presented its first academy course entitled " Family Assistance During Transportation Disasters." This course was well attended and received by a varied audience including representatives from industry, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. A significant number of Department of Defense (DoD) personnel also attended. The interest was so great that we were asked to develop a course specifically for DoD personnel. This course will be presented this fall.

We also offered a course last December for senior law enforcement officers who provide on-scene support to the Board. The Rhode Island State Police recommended such a course following the crash of EgyptAir flight 990. They believed that a better understanding of the needs of the Board and the concerns of the families would have helped law enforcement officers be more prepared and more effective.

Although these courses aren't specifically geared towards airports, a number of airport managers and law enforcement officers have attended. In addition, at the request of AAAE, the TDA staff did provide a two-day training course for airport managers a few years ago. They are currently developing an academy course specifically for airport personnel that will be offered next year.

No doubt, many challenges await us. The global nature of passenger transport requires all of us to work more closely together and to share lessons learned. We must ensure that everyone who travels on our transportation systems and their families receive the same level of assistance and support after an accident -- no matter where it occurs. To that end, each of those entities that deal with the traveling public should have a family assistance plan in place -- if you don't already have one -- now is the time to prepare it -- not when you're confronted by an accident.

Before I close, I was also asked to discuss the Safety Board's public affairs activities at an accident site. I think to understand the Safety Board's philosophy on releasing information to the public, we must begin with several realities on which I hope we all agree.

First, we live in an open society.

Second, we depend on our free press to provide us with information.

Third, press interest in aviation accidents is not going to go away.

The NTSB is a public agency -- funded by the public. It is our responsibility, and our policy, to tell the public what we are doing. Every accident raises questions about public safety and, unfortunately, they also attract a fair amount of morbid curiosity. We go out of our way to address the former, and even further out of our way to avoid pandering to the latter.

As you probably know, the Board is neither a regulatory nor law enforcement agency. Our final product is the safety recommendation, which carries weight only if the public perceives us to be impartial and credible. That means being open, and it means releasing information that might reflect unfavorably on another government agency, a private company, an individual, or even an airport. Nothing would destroy that credibility more than an information policy that makes us look like we are hiding or covering up information.

That is why when we send a go team to an accident, that team usually includes a Board Member who acts as principal spokesperson for the investigation, along with at least one press officer to coordinate with the media. Generally, in the days immediately following a major accident, we will hold two press briefings a day to get out as much factual information as possible and to minimize speculation.

If there is a major accident at your airport, please make contact with our public affairs representatives as soon as we get on scene - if not before. They will work with you to keep you up-to-date on our plans. In all probability, we will not hold joint press conferences with you or your representatives because if your airport is a party to the investigation, there may be aspects of your operations that will be subject to our scrutiny. However, as we do with all parties, our public affairs representatives will maintain a close working relationship with you. We will work with you to make sure any press activity on your property, including giving press pools access to the wreckage, is done with your knowledge and cooperation.

We have also had very good relations with airport public information offices and we've developed guidelines for airport public information officers for use after a crash on their property. If you aren't familiar with them, I encourage you to contact our public affairs office. But, the most important thing to remember is for all of us to "stay in our lanes." There are many items of information that should legitimately come from you - such as information about your airport operations. Don't try to speculate or comment about the possible cause of the accident. Direct those questions to us.

A few years ago, there was a crash at an airport and CNN carried the airport director's press conference because he was the first person in a position of authority to have anything to say. While most of his conference was about how the crash was affecting airport operations, at one point he decided to pass along some third-party eyewitness testimony. This was ill advised because, one, he didn't know how accurate the eyewitness's account was and, two, it made it much more difficult for him to fend off questions about the cause of the crash. The best thing to do is reassure your constituencies that you intend to cooperate fully with the NTSB investigation and leave it at that.

We strive to give the media as much factual information as soon as we can so that we can shut down our operation and return to Washington, from where we handle media information from then on. The closer we can work together with you to achieve that goal, the sooner you can get your airport back to full operational status.

As I close, I want to again thank all of you for your efforts to ensure compassionate treatment of victims and their families following a transportation disaster. It is the right thing to do as government officials, members of the transportation community, and as fellow human beings.