Recognizing a Quarter Century of 24/7 Response

By Chair Jennifer Homendy

Blue jackets. Devastating scenes. Calm in the wake of tragedy.

This is how many people describe their first impressions of NTSB. It’s not surprising given the international visibility of our on-scene work.

But today is all about who you don’t see: the folks who make the agency’s headline-grabbing work possible.

I’m talking about the incredible people of NTSB’s Response Operations Center, which is today celebrating 25 years of uninterrupted service to our nation.

What is the ROC?

It’s no exaggeration to say the Response Operations Center — or “ROC,” as we affectionally call it — is the agency’s central nervous system.

The ROC is staffed 24-hours-a-day, seven days a week by at least two watch officers. They work three or four consecutive, 12-hour shifts, for a total of about seven shifts over two weeks. 

The room looks as you would imagine: a dozen televisions line the wall in front of desks staffed by watch officers. Newscasters deliver the day’s stories from C-SPAN, the Weather Channel, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and various local stations.

NTSB’s Response Operations Center. The photo was taken before the pandemic required the use of masks in our office.

This is where the team takes in reports of transportation-related events around the clock. In addition to monitoring the news outlets, the team fields phone calls and emails from around the world, triages them, and rapidly pushes out the news to NTSB leadership and investigators who need to respond.

But most importantly, the ROC initiates the launch process by notifying the appropriate modal duty officers when an accident or crash occurs. 

As the investigation team members pack their gear, the ROC staff help prepare everything for the launch. This includes setting up conference calls, reserving hotel rooms, and booking rental cars. As for flights, many of the Washington, DC-based go-team members will expedite their travels to investigation destinations using one of the jets managed and operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The NTSB has access to two jets managed and operated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Origin Story

The first NTSB communications center opened its doors on February 3, 1997, in a conference room at NTSB headquarters.

NTSB’s first communication center in 1997.

The idea to launch a command center came from former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, who was on scene for the July 17, 1996, Trans World Airlines flight 800 explosion. It was the third-deadliest aviation tragedy in U.S. history.

Befitting its status as “central” to our mission, the agency relocated the ROC in 2014 to a room in the literal center of the building.

What It Takes to Operate for 9,125 Consecutive Days — and Counting

Once settled into its current location, the agency invested in everything needed to operate the ROC without interruption, no matter what.

Here are some examples of what it takes to keep the ROC ready for anything:

  • Computers specifically built to run nonstop, complete with special air filters to keep their internal systems clean.
  • A standalone HVAC system that runs independently from that of the building.
  • A full kitchen to ensure ROC staff can eat and prepare food even if local restaurants are closed.
  • Ever mindful of workplace safety, even the chairs in the ROC are ergonomically designed for continuous use.
  • Regular drills to ensure preparedness. 

The View from the ROC

For many working in the ROC, having a front seat to transportation tragedies can take an emotional toll.  

When asked how they cope, here’s what some team members had to share:

“For me, when these bad things happen, it is sort of like a wake-up call. It helps me appreciate life more.”

“The way I cope is by not following a crash after we play our role in the ROC. I don’t keep tabs on what is going on with them. I have to let go.”

The serious nature of the work may explain why the ROC team has named the electronic voice from its primary notification system.

Similar to the voice from your favorite smart speaker, “Helga” alerts ROC staff when notifications arrive from the FAA, Federal Railroad Administration, or the National Response Center. She’s been a constant in the ROC.

One team member shared that giving the system a persona is another coping mechanism, adding: “If it ever gets lonely in the ROC, there is always Helga to keep you company.”  

Celebrating 25 Years of 24/7 Response

Even as we celebrate the dedicated service of our ROC team, every NTSB employee is working to put ourselves out of a job by making transportation safer.

Until that day arrives, consider sending a mental “thank you” to the incredible professionals of the ROC the next time you’re enjoying the weekend, celebrating a holiday, or enjoying a quiet night at home.

The duty officers are always there, monitoring the safety of our transportation system.

Just as they have for the last 25 years.

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