From the Boardroom to the Field: Gathering Information outside Washington

By Mark Rosekind

Member Rosekind at the Tesla factory“Let’s learn more about each other BEFORE we’re on an accident scene.” That’s my philosophy and my advice to transportation organizations across the modes. It is far better for business, industry, and governments to know what the NTSB does, and for the NTSB to understand their respective safety roles and efforts prior to an accident, investigation, and recommendations. This is why whenever possible I like to visit transportation groups and representative sites when I’m on the road, where the perspective outside Washington can be more direct and provide greater context to our work at the agency.

Over the past several days, I’ve been in California taking advantage of proximity to transportation entities located a whole continent away from the NTSB’s home base in the nation’s capital. This part of the country is no stranger to some high-profile accidents and the NTSB’s recommendations. The insights gained at every one of the places I visited, and the invaluable two-way exchange these opportunities presented, will pay back important dividends to the agency’s ongoing work. Here are some of the highlights.

Cooperating with Local Governments, Law Enforcement, and Emergency Personnel

I met with the San Francisco Police and Fire Chiefs.   Through these officials and their top officers, I learned more about the strengths and challenges facing their departments when confronted with a major emergency response to a large-scale transportation accident. Knowing what works well and what needs to be enhanced or changed is critical to the NTSB’s ability to issue the most effective recommendations possible. It was also a great opportunity to shine some light on the NTSB process and the steps leading up to the Board’s issuance of an accident report. For as clear and transparent as the NTSB strives to be, we can always do more to demystify the process.

Learning More about Safety Operations in Different Modes

I had the opportunity to witness an unprecedented safety operation in San Francisco Bay when the Board of Pilot Commissioners and others conducted an emergency towing exercise involving an ultra-large container vessel in the shipping channel. The towboats secured an immense cargo ship that was simulated to be dead-in-the-water and brought her to safety away from the shipping lanes and out of harm’s way. It was a unique opportunity to see some of the day-to-day safety work of the Bay pilots and hear firsthand about their efforts to make shipping safer in the biggest estuary in the Americas and one of the three largest U.S. ports on the Pacific.

Expanding the Use of Technology in Transportation Safety

I use any opportunity in the Silicon Valley to find out more about innovations affecting transportation safety. This area is an incubator for next generation solutions that continue to revolutionize the way we think about traveling. Visits to Google and Tesla provided a chance to see what is happening in automotive technology to protect drivers on the nation’s roadways. I rode in the automated Google Car for a demonstration of the latest developments in the astonishing capability for vehicles to augment and even replace the human role in the driving task with a promising future for unprecedented safety. At Tesla, a company that sells electric cars and electric vehicle components, advances in lithium ion battery production, capabilities, and their safety was a key agenda item.

Getting Greater Context for Accident Investigations

Finally, I visited San Francisco International Airport (SFO) where the Asiana Airlines crash occurred last year. As the Board prepares for the June consideration of the accident report, this provided a good opportunity to see the crash site first-hand, talk with key emergency operations personnel about response procedures, meet with SFO officials on safety operations, and assess overall what the airport’s capabilities are in responding to this and any prospective emergencies that may occur at the facility. My time there was as in-depth as it could be and will be invaluable in next month’s deliberations.

Our agency’s Washington headquarters are wonderful, and full of passionate people and tremendous technical capabilities, but information from the field is also important to executing my duties as a Board Member. Whenever possible, the exchange of information on the NTSB process that I can provide those in the field builds strong bridges upon which we can rely for future investigations. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Somehow we must be able to show people that democracy is not about words, but action.”

Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., is a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is a frequent contributor to the NTSB blog.

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