By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt
What do you get when you cross a transportation-related life-saving mission with some of the best people in the federal government?
The National Transportation Safety Board, of course!
And that is no April Fool’s joke.
On this day 53 years ago, the NTSB was formed by an act of Congress. The agency’s mission is to investigate every civil aviation accident in the United States and significant accidents in other modes of transportation, determine their probable causes, and issue safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. In addition, we conduct special studies concerning transportation safety, and we coordinate the resources of the federal government and other organizations to provide assistance to victims and their family members impacted by major transportation disasters. We also adjudicate appeals from civil enforcement actions by the Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Coast Guard.
Since 1967, the NTSB has investigated more than 149,000 aviation accidents and thousands of surface transportation accidents. We’ve issued more than 15,000 safety recommendations—the vast majority of which ultimately are implemented. Some of the safety measures that have arisen, at least in part, from our safety recommendations include:
- Floor-level escape lighting, fire-blocking seat coverings, lavatory smoke detectors, stronger cabin seats
- Terrain avoidance and warning systems requirements
- Inert gas use to eliminate fuel tank explosions
- Shoulder harnesses in general aviation
- Raising the legal drinking age to 21 and .05 percent BAC drinking and driving laws
- Child passenger safety
- Enforcement of commercial vehicle regulations
- Boating-while-intoxicated laws
- Cruise ship fire safety
- Emergency position-indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) on vessels
Railroad & Rail Transit
- Positive train control
- Passenger rail car safety standards
- Toll-free emergency number posting at grade crossings
- Tank car enhancements
- One-call systems before excavation (“Call 811 Before You Dig”)
- Integrity management programs
- Facility response plan effectiveness and oversight
- Hazard communications training for first responders, community planning, and preparedness
I’m often reminded that you can have an important mission, but if you don’t have devoted, talented employees, you really don’t have a great agency. Fortunately, the NTSB has both.
Our mission generates dedication, which often translates to retention; some of our longest-serving employees have been at the agency for over 40 years. But don’t misinterpret that longevity as complacency. In the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, of the 70% of NTSB employees who completed the survey, 97% responded favorably to the statement, “When needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” Bear in mind that in many cases, “extra effort” is in addition to routine travel to remote accident sites with only hours’ notice!
During more than 13 years at the agency, including the past 3 as Chairman, I’ve had the pleasure to be surrounded by, and to work with, these professionals. As Chairman, I have relied on them to help formulate strategic decisions, advise me on technical details, and echo and amplify my own thirst for safety improvements.
Many of our air safety investigators are pilots and aircraft mechanics themselves—and each of them can tear down an engine. Several have built their own airplanes. Many of our highway safety investigators come from law enforcement backgrounds. Our marine investigators generally maintain licenses first earned as deck and engine officers or have Coast Guard investigative or regulatory experience. Our railroad and pipeline investigators are veterans of those industries and their regulators as well. Although doctoral degrees are common throughout the agency, the environment is as far as you can imagine from an ivory tower.
The NTSB workforce is among the best in the federal government, which is what fuels my desire to make the NTSB the best place to work in the federal government—even if, for now, we have temporarily moved that workplace into our homes.
Today, like many workforces, we are physically distant from one another, but we are not alone. We are physically separate, but we will get through this together. I’m grateful for the dedication and resilience of every one of NTSB’s employees. And that, too, is no April Fool’s joke.