By Michael Crook
Tomorrow starts the NTSB’s training course, Transportation Disaster Response – Family Assistance. I and my colleagues in the NTSB’s Transportation Disaster Assistance (TDA) division will spend the next three days with other presenters helping attendees to understand how any organization involved in transportation accident response can most effectively support accident victims and their families.
Long before I came to work at the NTSB, I took this very same training course while working for Pinnacle Airlines as the Manager for Emergency Response, Security, and Flight Safety. I know from my 16 years in the aviation industry that airlines strive to make each flight as safe as possible. When something goes wrong, however, having a plan in place and obtaining the necessary training can make all the difference in working with accident victims and families. I know this from personal experience, having worked 11 aviation accidents as either an emergency responder or accident investigator, most recently when Colgan Air (Continental Connection) Flight 3407 crashed on February 12, 2009 in Clarence Center, New York.
My first accident after taking the basic family assistance course was the October 2004 Pinnacle Airlines Flight 3701 crash in Jefferson City, Missouri. Unlike in previous accidents to which I had responded, I felt better able to prepare and guide my team on what the day-to-day challenges would be. I now understood the families’ motivation for information and how the families’ needs differ depending on whether they are passenger or employee families, where such employee-related matters as workers compensation may need to be addressed. I also felt better able to respond to the emotional impact of dealing with personal effects. In addition, this was the first accident in which my team and I had to address the needs of displaced individuals on the ground whose homes were destroyed, a requirement for airlines that was mandated after the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in 2001.
Federal legislation specifies that domestic air carriers, foreign air carriers, and interstate intercity passenger rail operators must provide comprehensive and effective family assistance. The lessons learned in this course, however, have significant value for any organization involved in emergency response. For example, as part of the US Army National Guard, I have responded to several natural disasters, including the 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the 2011 tornado in North Alabama. What I learned in the TDA course was particularly important as our National Guard Disaster Relief teams worked to understand the victims’ basic needs and to establish community response centers. TDA training courses often draw a varied audience of emergency response organizations. In addition to the almost 20 airlines and 5 airports sending representatives to tomorrow’s class, we have representatives from multiple local, state, and federal agencies as well as attendees from the cruise line industry, mental and behavioral health organizations, and pipeline operators.
The NTSB’s TDA team doesn’t stop with this family assistance course. In addition to other courses available at the NTSB Training Center, we travel around the country to conduct trainings and briefings on transportation family assistance response for airlines, airports, local and state agencies and professional associations. The bottom line is to ensure an effective response for the ultimate customers of the service: the family members of victims and survivors of transportation accidents.
Michael Crook is the Coordinator for Transportation Disaster Operations in the Transportation Disaster Assistance Division, Office of Communications.