Category Archives: Family Assistance

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.

You Can Never Be too Prepared for a Disaster

By Michael Crook

Michael CrookTomorrow 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.

A True Crusader for Victims’ Issues

By Debbie Hersman

Chairman Hersman with  Hans Ephraimson-Abt
Chairman Hersman with Hans Ephraimson-Abt

On October 18, the aviation community lost a giant among men: Hans Ephraimson-Abt.  In his New York Times obituary, the headline described him as an “Air-Crash Victims’ Crusader.”  I couldn’t help but think how aptly the term “crusader” fit him, for he applied every means at his disposal to advance victims’ issues for decades.

There is no doubt that the positive changes we have seen in the way air crash victims and their families are treated in the aftermath of a transportation tragedy is due in no small part to Hans’ efforts over the last 30 years.  For those of us in this line of work, we know all too well Hans’ personal story of the tragedy of his daughter, Alice, and the ill-fated flight of Korean Air Lines flight 007. But perhaps what is more remarkable is that in all the years that I worked with Hans, I never sensed any bitterness or resentment in him.

Through the decades, as he faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get a law passed, or an international treaty signed, he never took “no” for an answer.  He knew he could not win every battle, but he never gave up the fight.  As a crusader, he was fierce and dogged in his determination.  But he was always the diplomat and the gentleman.  A few weeks before his passing, when we were together at the 38th General Assembly of ICAO in Montreal, there he was, engaging another delegate or ambassador to support the ratification of the Montreal Convention or the new ICAO policy on family assistance in air disasters.

This past spring, Hans invited me to attend a small private reception at the home of the consul general for the German mission in New York.  With his children, grandchildren and a few dear friends in attendance, he received the Order of Merit, one of the highest civilian awards bestowed by the Republic of Germany.  To me, it was a climactic moment in Hans’ life. Here was a man whose family had fled his native Germany on the eve of World War II, spending time in work camps, not knowing where his parents and family members were. Years later, he emigrated to a new life in New York, where he was reunited with his parents.

Yes, Hans was a crusader but he was also a survivor.  And because he knew firsthand about the mistreatment of others, he made it a point to rise above it.  He never had a bad word to say about anyone.  He demonstrated through his life’s work that you can always be kind and courteous even when you disagree.  Hans didn’t take to compliments easily.  He would demur if you wanted to heap praise on him.  But as I stood and witnessed that event in New York, I could see how deeply he was touched by the honor bestowed on him, for his selfless contributions, and this one time, he accepted the recognition he so deserved.

When I saw him at the ICAO meetings in Montreal, on his lapel, he wore the ribbon that accompanied his medal.  As always, he was gracious and kind in our meetings.   As always, he urged us to continue the crusade.  With his passing, a new leadership will take up the cause that he began 30 years ago.  And like Hans, we can’t win every battle.  But if we remain true to our cause and to ourselves, then one day, perhaps we can fully realize Hans’ crusade for compassionate treatment of all survivors and victims’ families in the aftermath of aviation tragedies.

Worldwide Compassion

The earthBy Debbie Hersman

Here in the United States, major aviation accident victims and their families receive support and information from the NTSB and other agencies under the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996.

Since the law was enacted, several other countries passed similar legislation, but no worldwide guiding policy existed for implementing support for those impacted by large-scale aviation accidents. This took an important turn last week when the governing Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization, the aviation body of the United Nations, unanimously approved a policy document calling on its 191 member states to reaffirm their commitment to support aviation accident victims and their families (http://www.icao.int/Newsroom/Pages/ICAO-policy-document-puts-renewed-focus-on-care-of-aircraft-accident-victims-and-family-members.aspx).

I am particularly pleased with the ICAO announcement and recognize the leadership and hard work that enabled this important step to be taken. The NTSB, working with other international governmental and non-governmental interests, played an important role in the development of the policy and the revision of the supporting guidance document. Our Transportation Disaster Assistance program staff provided consultation during the process and continues to respond to requests from other countries about implementing and managing an effective family assistance program.

Thankfully, major aviation accidents are rare, but, when they do happen, victims and their families needs should be addressed in a compassionate manner – the new policy and guidance go a long way towards making that happen.

Serving the Living

By Debbie Hersman

Today, I spoke at the International Mass Fatality Management Conference, which brought together leaders in mass fatality management to explore past incident management, discuss lessons learned, and define best practices to improve future responses. It was a privilege to be with dedicated professionals from 38 states, 19 countries, and several government agencies who deal with such important, complex, and sensitive issues.

My remarks were based on the NTSB’s experience in coordinating assistance to family members after major accidents. While NTSB has the responsibility to facilitate victim recovery and identification, we do not conduct those processes. That responsibility remains with the local medical examiner or coroner. Yet, these offices can rely on our Transportation and Disaster Assistance team (TDA) to work closely with U.S. jurisdictions to ensure they get needed resources and advice.

Importantly, while their work must be done correctly from a technical perspective, it is essential to effectively and compassionately address the needs and concerns of family members regarding victim recovery and identification. Interactions with family members are crucial, but it is equally crucial they be conducted with professionalism, understanding, and compassion.

We’ve learned a lot since Congress gave us this responsibility in 1996. We know there is a constant and often delicate balance to maintain between the medicolegal responsibilities associated with any mass fatality event and the concerns of the bereaved. Yet, I reminded the audience that the way family members are treated during the initial response will stay with them forever, which underscores the importance of doing the work correctly and always with an understanding of the importance of families.

Poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch captured the importance of the audience’s work in his poem, “Local Heroes,” about the forensic response to the 2001 World Trade Center disaster. Lynch wrote: “… here, brave men and women pick the pieces up. They serve the living, caring for the dead.”

DMORT: Partners in the Event of Transportation Disasters

By Debbie Hersman

DMORT LogoThe loss of a loved one in a transportation accident is a tragedy beyond words. Knowing that the process of identifying them is being done by compassionate professionals from one of our federal agency partners is a small comfort afforded to family members. The Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT), an integral part of the National Disaster Medical System managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, has played that critical role in providing services in 14 transportation accidents since 1999.

The legal requirement for conducting identifications resides with the medical examiner or coroner in the jurisdiction where the accident occurred. However, transportation disasters with high numbers of fatally-injured victims often overwhelm the capabilities of smaller medical examiner/coroner offices. Trauma, fire, and other factors can also introduce unique challenges requiring a multi-agency response to conduct victim recovery and identification. To assist with these challenges, the NTSB exercises its legal authority to coordinate resources and facilitate the identification process—with resources like those provided by DMORT.

DMORT is comprised of private citizens with expertise in large-scale forensic identification responses. Team members are specialists in the areas of forensic pathology, forensic dentistry, forensic anthropology, fingerprint analysis, x-ray interpretation, and DNA analysis. Like our accident go-team, they are able to travel on short notice once notified by NTSB that their services are needed. Once on scene, DMORT personnel augment the resources of the medical examiner or coroner by providing critical expertise, logistical and operations support, and when necessary, one or more Disaster Portable Morgue Units, a forensics laboratory on wheels that are particularly useful in responding to remote accident scenes.

I’ve met with numerous family members affected by the tragic loss of a loved one. And although it is easy to focus on the legal requirements (death certification, estate settlement, insurance claims) that often depend on victim identification, it is the humanitarian element that always leaves the most lasting impression. DMORT’s readiness to step forward in the wake of disaster aids us tremendously in our efforts to meet the needs of victims and their families. On behalf of the NTSB, I want to acknowledge their compassionate spirit and willingness to support this critical aspect of our work.

Providing Help When It’s Needed

By Paul Sledzik

On June 24, a large truck struck an Amtrak passenger train at a grade crossing on a rural highway near Miriam, Nevada. Six people died and scores of rail passengers were injured. After that accident, the NTSB launched a “Go Team” to the site to begin investigating what caused the accident.  Three members of the NTSB’s Transportation Disaster Assistance division, or TDA, accompanied the Go Team to coordinate assistance for family members of those killed or injured. 

TDA was created in 1996 by the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act, which requires the NTSB to coordinate support for victims and their families after a major commercial aviation accident.  However, the TDA team does not limit its efforts to aviation.  It accompanies the Go Team to all major accidents regardless of the mode.  To strengthen TDA’s role, in 2008, Congress enacted the Rail Passenger Disaster Family Assistance Act to require TDA cover passengers and family members involved in rail passenger accidents.  The recent collision in Nevada was the first time TDA responded to a rail crash under this legislation.  TDA staff members traveled to the accident location and worked closely with survivors, family members, Amtrak officials, and local agencies. 

In the end, however, the assistance is not one-sided. NTSB has found time and again that victims’ families provide significant help in promoting transportation safety, perhaps as a way to work through their grief and ensure that their loved one did not die or become injured in vain.  Michael Burch, who lost his father in a 1991 Amtrak accident in Lugoff, South Carolina, became an instrumental part of the task force that helped develop a rail disaster plan to exercise in an accident like the recent one in Nevada.  In addition, the Burch family established the Dr. Gary Burch Memorial Safety Award in cooperation with the National Association of Railroad Passengers to recognize passenger rail employees who have made improvements to passenger railroad safety. 

While NTSB is an investigative agency, the work of our TDA staff to help coordinate services with disaster response organizations to support survivors and family members is vitally important to provide help when it is needed most.


 Paul Sledzik is Director of NTSB’s Transportation Disaster Assistance Division.