Remarks of Honorable Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman
At Her Swearing-In Ceremony
September 8, 2009
Everywhere I look around this room, I see the faces of busy people. I know that you have set aside work, appointments, deadlines and all sorts of obligations to be here today. There’s just no way to express how grateful I am for the effort that you have made to share in this moment with me. Today will be on my life’s top ten list, right behind my wedding day and the births of my three boys, of course, and I thank you for being here to help me celebrate it!
I am here because President Obama and his team, and many people in this room believed in me. From Gov. Wise, who was my first boss almost twenty years ago, who taught me so many things about being a leader, to my loyal staff, Nancy and Reshan, who have helped me become a leader, and all of the smart, wonderful people who have educated me, encouraged me and yes, challenged me along the way. I want you to know how honored I am to be in this position, in this Administration. I am humbled by the opportunity I have been given and I feel the gravity of the responsibilities before me.
Congressman Oberstar, thank you for those warm words. You are, and always have been, a champion of the NTSB. We, the agency and I, rely on your support and the faith you have shown in us over the years, and we consider you, as always, our trusted friend.
And, to Antion Downs, our “People’s Choice” emcee, thank you for being such an outstanding representative of our agency. It is because of positive people like you, with “can do” attitudes, that the NTSB is ranked one of the best places to work in Government. You can see why he won the peer award from his colleagues a couple of years ago.
Next, let me address my family (can you all please stand when I recognize you – they threatened to do the wave, a cheer or foot stomp, so now is your chance!), my husband, Niel, my boys, Taylor, Wilson and Jackson, our au pair, Diana, my parents Penny Anderson, Walt and Inge Hersman, my sister Valerie Barlowe and her family (Carey, Megan and Cameron), my stepbrother, Rob and my unbelievable in-laws, the Plummer family: you are all part of the oath that I just took. As the song says, you are really the wind beneath my wings; I am truly blessed to be a part of these families. Niel, it is because I know your love, your support, and your abiding faith in me will always be there to catch me, that I have dared to try things that scare me. I couldn’t do this without you.
Now, I want to talk to our incredibly dedicated staff. First, let me describe the NTSB staff in a few words. They are smart, curious and passionate about transportation safety. They love to solve mysteries, and they don’t stop looking for answers until they have turned over every rock, peered around every corner, asked every question. And while our investigators are combing over accident sites, our support team is making sure the investigators have all the tools that they need and that the reports they generate are professionally produced, explained to the public and our most important product, our recommendations, are pursued. I look forward to being a part of one of the best five member boards this agency has seen. I am very proud to serve alongside Vice Chairman Hart and Member Sumwalt, and I know they would agree that our staff is a dream team, and I am certainly the luckiest agency head in federal government. So, what will this agency accomplish in the next two years?
Let me start by telling you a story about a young athlete—a pole-vaulter—whose talent and dedication to the sport were unsurpassed. Looking back on my days in track and field in high school, I recall that there were not many pole-vaulters, it seemed like there were usually just one or two per team. They are fairly isolated and solitary, mostly training on their own and setting their own goals. Now this pole-vaulter was a natural, he could vault higher than anyone he competed with. He won first place in every competition. He was the county champ, the district champ, the state champ, the regional champ, and ultimately, the national champion pole-vaulter. This went on year after year, and it was thought that this young athlete had “set the bar” and that his height was the highest anyone could pole vault. He had no competition and no equal.
Then one year, during the national competition, to the shock and surprise of everyone in the stands, another athlete swung his body over a bar that was one inch higher than our champion. You see, because it was believed that no one could beat our champion, he didn’t see the need to change. He trained year after year to the same height. He had no reason to go higher; until now. He did not win the national championship that year, so he went home and thought about what he should do. After pondering it over, he realized there was only one solution. He would have to train to a more difficult standard. In other words, he would have to raise the bar. So, that’s what he did. He raised the bar one inch, and then two inches, and the following year, he brought his A game to nationals. Not only that, he kept training by raising the bar, by pushing himself higher every year. Sure, from time to time, other competitors would give him a run for his money, but in the end, he remained at the top because he kept raising the bar.
The NTSB is respected the world over for our thorough and thoughtful accident investigations. We often are held up as an exemplar in our field. But like the pole-vaulter, we still need to constantly striving to be better, to move faster and reach higher. So in the next two years, I am going to challenge us—note, I didn’t say “you,” I said “us”—to raise our bar.
Our agency is more than 40 years old, and while our mission remains the same, the world has changed drastically. To remain relevant in our fast-moving environment, we need to be nimble. This year, we proved we can be nimble when the agency held a public hearing less than three months after the Colgan accident in Buffalo, pushing the issue of fatigue to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. This summer we issued recommendations just weeks after accidents occurred on WMATA in June and then over the Hudson river last month. Because we have no authority to require action, it is essential for us to act when the accidents we investigate have captured the attention of the public and decision makers – striking while the iron is hot is the most likely way to develop momentum on our recommendations. Although we can’t rush the work we do, when we are confident that we have identified and documented needed safety improvements, we should move quickly.
There are three attributes I believe are critical to the success of our mission at NTSB. They are transparency, accountability, and integrity.
Transparency comes about when we are willing to show others what we do and how we do it. I understand that there are times during our investigative process when we must keep information close to our vests. But to the extent we can talk about what we are doing, we should. It is up to us to show the public that we are conducting thorough, independent investigations and that government does work for them. So how do we raise the bar on transparency? Let’s imagine for a moment that our relationship with the media can be improved through more effective communication, use of multimedia products and utilizing social media. We are heading in the right direction by opening our dockets through our website and making them more easily accessible to our stakeholders.
Let’s imagine that we are now providing creative products to the Executive Branch and Capitol Hill to better explain our mission, our needs, and our recommendations. Congress is very often are our most effective change agent for enhancing safety in transportation as we saw last year with the passage of the Rail Safety Improvement Act. The House version of this legislation was authored by Chairman Oberstar and it contained many NTSB recommendations, including several from our Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements. Let’s imagine that we are spooled up to conduct several public hearings every year because we know that these hearings are effective in launching a safety dialogue soon after an accident reveals the need. All of this imagining is kind of exciting. We’ve just imagined our way to a very transparent organization. So here’s my challenge: let’s go further than imagining. Let’s do it. Let’s raise the bar.
What about accountability? How do we raise that bar? Well, just last week, in addressing the safety of helicopter emergency medical services, the Board approved recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asking the agency to consider HEMS safety when setting reimbursement schedules and requirements under Medicare and Medicaid. Usually our recommendations go to organizations with a more direct connection to transportation than HHS. It was a departure from our customary practice for the Safety Board to address the rising accident rate of HEMS operations not only through routine aviation channels but also through the financial support from the medical community. We took a different and broader approach to finding safety solutions to a growing problem. In other words, we raised the bar.
Our accountability encompasses our on-going relationship with, and our responses to, all of our stakeholders. Sometimes that means holding others accountable and following through with outlined actions when clear guidance regarding participation in our investigations has been violated. Other times that means being accountable to stakeholders even when there isn’t a clear roadmap about how to do it, especially to those who have suffered the most after an accident, the loved ones of accident victims. Some of you are probably aware that today is the 15th Anniversary of USAir 427. That accident took the lives of all 132 people aboard and changed life after that for so many others who lost their loved ones that day. Let’s imagine that we not only provide family members with the timely information they need after an accident, but we also give them a dependable forum for listening to their concerns because we know that sometimes being heard is the best comfort they have. Let’s not just imagine it. Let’s do it. Let’s raise the bar.
Finally, integrity, which is choosing to do the right thing instead of the popular thing. Again and again, when we investigate accidents and analyze the actions of the people involved, we demand professionalism and vigilance by truckers, pilots, locomotive engineers, air traffic controllers, motorcycle riders, bus drivers, dispatchers, transit operators, and maintenance personnel, to name just a few. Every time we raise the bar on their performance, we need to look at ourselves and hold up that mirror… do we need to establish our own SMS or CRM?
Over five years ago, we issued a recommendation to the Federal Railroad Administration to prohibit train crews from using cell phones while on duty, about one year ago we saw one of the worst rail accidents in decades when 25 people were killed in a head on collision in southern California, and records showed that the engineer had been sending and receiving text messages in the seconds immediately prior to the collision. On our Federal Most Wanted List we have recommended that CDL holders with passenger and school bus endorsements be prohibited from using cellular telephones while driving with passengers, and on our State Most Wanted List we have a recommendation dating back to 2003 that asks states to restrict the use of wireless devices by novice drivers.
When it comes to being a good parent, good role model, good leader, I’ve learned by observation and practice that it is a poor substitute to pronounce, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I’ve come to believe that by the Safety Board not having its own rules prohibiting the use of cellular phones and other electronic devices while driving, we are not being true to our own investigative findings and our own recommendations. To my way of thinking, it is a matter of faithfulness to our own findings; it is an issue of integrity.
Accordingly, today I am announcing a new agency policy to curb the use of electronic devices, including cell phones while driving. If you are driving while on NTSB business, you should not be using a wireless device. If you are driving your own car on your personal time, you should not be using an NTSB-issued electronic device while driving. It will be clearly understood that while NTSB employees are driving in the furtherance of government business, they will not be telephoning or text messaging. Period. And this goes for your new chairman too. Listen, I was as hooked to my Blackberry as anyone in this room. I figured my hour-long commute to work and then again back home was a great time to conduct a little business or maybe stay connected with my family. No more. The risk of catastrophic consequences is just too great. Think of it as your very own sterile cockpit rule. As my colleague, Member Sumwalt has shared with me; professionalism is doing the right thing even when no one is watching. Approximately 40,000 people die every year on our nation’s highways. Some of these accidents are caused by distracted driving. If we are going to raise the bar on highway safety, let’s start with our own driving habits and have the integrity to live by our recommendations. I hope that I will have your full support on this new policy because you are professionals dedicated to safety. We will raise this bar, too.
The next two years are going to be very exciting for me, but more importantly, I want them to be exciting for you. We have accomplished much in our 40-year history, but we still have a lot to do. We will look at safety issues from different perspectives and then envision new ways to address the problems. We will acknowledge that tried and true types of solutions still work, but new kinds of solutions may also work. We will think creatively of new ways to tackle old safety problems. We will not just imagine ourselves doing our jobs better, we will raise the bar and accomplish it, because in the end, we can’t afford not to, lives depend on it.