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Testimony before the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, United States Senate regarding Reauthorization of the National Transportation Safety Board (oral)
Marion C. Blakey
United States Senate, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, regarding Reauthorization of the National Transportation Safety Board, Washington, DC

Good morning Chairman Rockefeller. I am pleased to appear before you today on behalf of the National Transportation Safety Board regarding our request for reauthorization.

As Chairman, it is my responsibility to advance the Board's critical mission, a mission that cannot, however, be achieved alone. Your help and support makes it possible for the NTSB to continue its important work.

It is with this collective objective in mind that I come before you with the agency's request for reauthorization.

The Board's request asks for budget and personnel resource levels to sustain the NTSB's Training Academy, a clarification of family affairs responsibilities following intentional criminal acts, and full independent investigative authority in marine accidents we investigate.

First, the NTSB requests a budget level capable of sustaining the NTSB's soon-to-be-built Academy. The NTSB has for many years provided training for its investigators and other transportation accident investigators from around the world. The Board also provides family affairs training for U.S. and international government agencies and industry representatives.

The Academy, which is expected to open in fiscal year 2003, will enable the NTSB to consolidate and formalize all NTSB training activities. The Academy will also house the TWA flight 800 accident aircraft reconstruction and will provide state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratory space for accident investigation.

Helping to ensure the best investigative techniques and to set high standards worldwide for independent, thorough and accurate investigations is critical in our increasingly interdependent global transportation system.

Next, the Board requests your assistance in clarifying the role of our Office of Family Affairs when a disaster is deemed criminal and the investigation is transferred to the FBI.

We have good reason for this request. As you know, the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act wisely triggers our family affairs response regardless of the suspected cause of the accident. The intent of the Act is to provide family assistance without any delay due to uncertainty about which agency would lead the investigation. The Safety Board fully supports both the letter and spirit of the law - - and we believe our request is consistent with both.

However, once an investigation is transferred to the FBI and any uncertainty as to the lead agency is resolved, the Board believes that responsibility for family assistance should also be transferred. At this point, the accident site is deemed a crime scene. Access is restricted and information about the investigation becomes tightly controlled - - understandably much more so then when the NTSB has investigative priority.

For this reason, the FBI's Office of Victim Assistance is in a better position to make decisions regarding victim recovery, identification of remains, and the extent to which information can or cannot be shared with the families of the victims. The events of September 11th demonstrated that these decisions should be made by the agency leading the investigation. The NTSB's Office of Family Affairs will be ready and willing to provide the FBI with any needed assistance.

Finally, the NTSB requests full independent investigative authority in the marine accidents we investigate. Currently, we have such authority in all modes except marine - - aviation, railroad, highway, pipeline, and hazardous materials. The NTSB's independent accident investigation authority has not interfered with any of DOT's statutory responsibilities. In fact, we have developed a healthy relationship with other DOT agencies such as the FAA and FRA, which has been significant in improving transportation. All of the other modes of transportation have benefited from our investigations for over 30 years, and passengers and crew who rely on marine transportation, as well as the public affected by maritime accidents, should be given the full benefit of a similar system of checks and balances.

It is important to recognize that granting the NTSB's request will in no way fundamentally affect the responsibilities of the Coast Guard. In fact, we ask only to examine those accidents that pose the most significant threat to the traveling public - - a very limited number of accident investigations that offer the greatest potential for yielding safety improvements.

Why? . . . Because our goal is to protect the American public by preventing future accidents. This is our sole mission. It is what makes us different. And for this reason, we must have the authority to lead a limited number of accidents, which we believe will allow us to best improve safety.

As a result of NTSB investigations, a number of important marine safety improvements have taken place that may not have otherwise resulted from Coast Guard investigations. This is so because the Coast Guard focuses primarily on compliance with current regulations, which, of course, it developed and enforces. For example, as a result of Safety Board investigations, large cruise ships are required to have sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, and improved permanent fire barriers. In addition, all commercial fishing vessels are required to carry emergency radio beacons, survival suits, and life rafts, and 7 cruise lines have either installed or have committed to install local sounding smoke alarms.

We commend the Coast Guard for its actions in making our recommendations a reality. However, the current investigation relationship between the Coast Guard and NTSB frequently has a detrimental effect on NTSB investigations. Because a Coast Guard investigation focuses on enforcement and penalties, it makes it difficult for the NTSB to obtain the cooperation of all parties, to determine the probable cause of the accident, and to develop safety recommendations to improve the marine safety for all Americans.

And when we investigate accidents - - there is no need to duplicate the effort. Currently, when the NTSB investigates a marine accident, two reports are issued - - one by the NTSB and one by the Coast Guard. In today's climate - - where American's safety and security is being threatened on a daily basis - - we need to maximize our resources and avoid redundancy that affects not just our agencies but others at the state and local level and in the private sector who receive our reports.

As you are aware, during our last reauthorization we requested Congressional assistance in resolving this issue. You listened to our request, and you responded - - the National Transportation Safety Board Amendments Act of 2000 included a deadline of one year for the revision of the inter-agency Memorandum of Understanding to clarify with the Coast Guard the circumstances in which the NTSB would lead marine investigations.

Over the past year, the NTSB and the Coast Guard met on numerous occasions and exchanged proposals to amend the MOU. Unfortunately, negotiations between the agencies appear to be at a standstill. For this reason, we are again asking for congressional intervention.

Although the Board has asked for congressional intervention, I assure you we are continuing to pursue the negotiations. I have discussed this matter with Secretary Norman Mineta, and I plan to soon meet with Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson and the Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thomas Collins.

Mr. Chairman, I leave the Committee with a last thought regarding our request. The NTSB is a very small agency relative to the Coast Guard and this issue has been a significant problem for us with a great deal of time and effort spent on it for over 6 years. That's how long we've been trying to work this out. In the marine area the NTSB operates with less independence and less efficiency than in any other mode. If we are to keep the public trust that results from fully independent investigations, we have to have your support to permit the NTSB to lead a small number of independent marine investigations.

Mr. Chairman - - I thank you again for the opportunity to appear before you today, and I will be happy to respond to any questions you may have.

Thank you.