Empathy, Compassion and the Golden Rule: Passenger and Family Assistance Operations

By Katy Chisom

Vice Chairman Dinh-Zarr addresses attendees at NTSB's conference on Passenger and Family Assistance OperationsThree ideas serve as the foundation for successful family assistance: empathy, compassion and the golden rule. Seemingly simple, these three concepts provide essential guidance for emergency managers who find themselves working with family members in the aftermath of a transportation disaster.

On May 7, 2015, the NTSB’s Transportation Disaster Assistance division hosted the agency’s first formal meeting of passenger rail professionals from across the country. Participants from as far as San Diego, CA traveled to Washington, DC to connect with the NTSB, Amtrak, the American Red Cross and other passenger rail agencies and exchange ideas regarding not just establishing, but improving their family assistance plans for the aftermath of a major accident.

The focus on including family assistance in emergency response operations is especially important to NTSB Vice Chairman Dr. T. Bella Dinh-Zarr. Vice Chairman Dinh-Zarr opened this month’s conference by providing a great example of her family’s daily reliance on passenger rail lines. Both she and her husband use commuter rail during the work week and frequently take the train on weekends for sightseeing excursions or to visit with friends and family. With such large numbers of people utilizing the rail systems, the focus on family assistance in the aftermath of an accident is an important aspect of emergency response.

Max Green, Emergency Operations Coordinator for the NTSB’s Transportation Disaster Assistance division highlighted key aspects of a successful family assistance operation. He emphasized the importance of the initial interaction with family members and addressing their concerns. For a rail carrier, notification of a loved one’s involvement in an accident is an important aspect of family assistance. Although it may be difficult to determine who was onboard without a manifest, it is important that carriers provide as much information as possible to the local emergency manager to properly account for those involved. Max further emphasized the rail carrier’s responsibility in making contact with affected family groups as soon as possible. News today travels quickly and families will likely know about an accident through websites and social media before a company is able to issue a formal press release. Establishing a plan for timely notification of involvement provides the carrier with an opportunity to take responsibility, offer condolences, provide accurate information, assign a point of contact, and offer available resources and assistance.

Amtrak provided a strong presence during the conference with 7 participants and 3 presentations. Susan Reinertson, Vice President of Emergency Management and Corporate Security, and Mary Carlson, Senior Manager of Training and Exercises, provided an extensive overview of Amtrak’s commitment to family assistance operations through preparedness and community collaboration.  Although Amtrak is legislated by Congress to provide family assistance to its passengers after an accident, they strive to go beyond the assurances required by the 2008 legislation. Several times a year, Amtrak conducts emergency response exercises that include family assistance operations. Mary Carlson spoke about a full scale exercise in Chicago in which Amtrak and its community partners established a family assistance center and recruited volunteers from major air carriers to role play as family members to allow Care Team members practice their roles and the caring provision of services. Through this dedication of time and resources, Amtrak continues to emphasize the importance of caring for its employees, passengers and their families before and after an accident.

Agencies present at the meeting included: All Aboard Florida, Charlotte Area Transit System, Herzog Transit Services Incorporated, Keolis Rail Services Virginia, Maryland Transit Administration, North County Transit District, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, Utah Transit Authority, Virginia Railway Express, and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Although the majority of the attendees are not required by law to provide family assistance to its passengers after an accident, their attendance and participation demonstrates a commitment to customer service and “doing the right thing” even when no one is watching.

Paul Sledzik, Chief of the NTSB Transportation Disaster Assistance division, often reminds stakeholders that “when all else fails, remember these three concepts: empathy, compassion, and the golden rule” during all interactions with family members. When an emergency manager is able to view each step in the process with those concepts in mind, the operational planning will remain focused on taking care of the customer and continuing to provide the best service possible for the given situation.


Katy Chisom is a Coordinator of Victim Services for the Transportation Disaster Assistance division within the NTSB Office of Communications.

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