By Robert Sumwalt
On August 21, 2006, I was sworn in as the 37th member of the National Transportation Safety Board. At the same time, I was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as NTSB Vice Chairman. In 2011, President Barack Obama reappointed me for an additional five-year term as a board member.
As I reflect on 10 years as an NTSB board member, there are several things that stand out. First, is the mission. Our role in transportation safety quickly became apparent when, on my seventh day on the job, I launched to an airline crash in Lexington, Kentucky. Tragically, that crash claimed 49 lives.
But, the NTSB’s primary mission involves more than just investigating accidents. It also involves determining the cause of accidents, and then, most importantly, issuing safety recommendations to prevent future accidents. At the entrance to our training center, we have an etched glass window that says, “From tragedy we draw knowledge to protect the safety of us all.” And that’s exactly what we do – we learn from tragedy so we can keep it from happening again.
Recently, one of our investigators wrote to me about a rail accident he investigated where fire and explosion claimed multiple lives. He told of meeting a man who was glaring at the carnage as he pushed a baby in a carriage. As it turned out, the man’s wife – the baby’s mother – had been killed in the disaster. Our investigator promised the man that the NTSB would get to the bottom of why this event occurred so other accidents could be prevented. “I also watched a man standing outside of the exclusion zone peering over the barrier in tears as a backhoe demolished his home,” the investigator explained in his note to me. “My thoughts were of those victims, and it was clear that we were being called upon to do this for them.”
Yes, we are here to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice—the victims and their families of transportation accidents. I take great solace knowing our work really does make a difference and keeps others from enduring similar tragedies.
The NTSB is an independent federal agency – meaning, we are not attached to a larger federal organization such as the U.S. Department of Transportation. In my opinion, independence is one of our greatest virtues because it allows the agency to conduct investigations and explore safety issues without being encumbered by actual or perceived political pressures. As I’ve often said, our independence allows us to “call it the way we see it.”
What also stands out to me is the dedication of the men and women of the NTSB. Their passion and determination to find the truth is uplifting. In the most recent employee viewpoint survey, 96 percent of respondents replied positively to the statement, “When needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.” That demonstrates the commitment and dedication NTSB employees share for fulfilling our mission.
In addition to investigative activities, there is a proactive side to the NTSB. Our staff conducts safety studies, tracks and follows up on our safety recommendations, and advocates for safety improvements by providing testimony on safety issues, promoting our Most Wanted List, bringing important safety issues into the public discussion via social media efforts, and organizing safety events such as roundtable discussions.
One of the NTSB’s values is transparency; we are open and honest with the public about our work. We post on our website all accident reports and publications, as well as the docket for each accident. The docket provides reams of background information for accidents, such as interviews, photos, and technical information that may not be in the actual accident report. Our board meetings are webcast and open to the public. And, our Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications ensures the media are informed of the status of investigations by answering questions, arranging interviews, issuing press releases, and releasing updates through social media.
Many are surprised to learn that the NTSB also serves as a court of appeals for pilots, aircraft mechanics, and mariners who receive violation notices from the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S Coast Guard. The NTSB’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) processes those cases, and our three ALJs hold hearings to adjudicate those matters.
The NTSB’s Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance – a highly trained group with expertise in social services, emergency management, and forensics – works closely with various organizations to meet the needs of disaster victims and their families. This group also serves as the primary point of contact for family members and disaster victims, providing updates regarding the status of NTSB investigations and addressing their questions. It takes a special person to do the work they do, and I’m always appreciative of how well they do it.
There are other parts of the agency that aren’t often acknowledged, but nevertheless are important to allowing the agency to function. As in any organization, job openings need to be posted and filled, bills paid, contracts written and executed, and our computers maintained. The employees who perform these functions are as dedicated as those performing the agency’s core mission.
To put it simply, I’m so proud to be part of this agency. Our mission, independence, transparency, and people are all so important. I’m honored to have served with them for the past 10 years.
Robert Sumwalt is an NTSB board member.