Blossoms, Tourists, and Improving Bus Safety

By Debbie Hersman

MotorcoachesIt’s cherry blossom time here in Washington, and as I look out my office window, I can see the band of pink cherry blossoms that line the banks of the Potomac. These famous trees make DC a favorite destination for spring tourists. If you look a little closer, you’ll discover how the tourists get here. Behind almost every tree, as far as the eye can see are motorcoaches parked nose-to-tail. Motorcoach travel is one of the most popular modes of transportation today, and motorcoaches carry almost 750 million passengers each year.

There’s been a lot in the news lately about the safety of these large buses. Attention was drawn to the subject when in the early morning hours of March 12, a motorcoach traveling southbound on I-95 toward New York City suddenly swerved, rolled over on its side and struck a signpost, killing 15 of the passengers, and injuring all the other occupants.

Shortly after this fatal accident in NY, there was another accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. The motorcoach struck a concrete wall of an exit ramp, resulting in 2 fatalities and 44 injuries. A week after that there was another accident in Littleton, NH where the motorcoach swerved off a snowy highway, rolling onto its side and injuring 25. Three weeks: three accidents. Statisticians will tell us that this is not a trend, but the news is disturbing nonetheless.

Today, I testified before Congress (read my full written testimony) on motorcoach safety to repeat our calls for safety improvements. Right now, we have 100 outstanding safety recommendations that address motorcoach safety. That’s 100 opportunities to improve the safety of about three-quarters of a billion passengers a year. It’s time to make motorcoach safety a priority.

Family Assistance: Promoting an International Approach

By Debbie Hersman

Ever since I joined the NTSB, I’ve been continually impressed with the strength of families of transportation disasters. Today was no different. The NTSB’s two-day International Family Assistance Conference has brought together victim’s families, family advocacy groups, transportation industry and government representatives whose role is to assist victims and families. These attendees came from all over the world and represent countries with family assistance programs and countries seeking to establish programs.

This morning family members openly shared their moving and painful stories about losing a loved one in a transportation accident. These experiences created a network of family groups who work tirelessly to improve the way victims and families are treated in the wake of an accident. Because of the selfless efforts of these individuals, families affected by future accidents have more resources and support available to them than ever before.

Most heartening to me was to see so many countries at the conference. Government safety representatives from around the world talked about their programs and in some cases spoke candidly about the lack of family assistance in their region. These discussions went to the heart of the conference – family assistance professionals sharing their knowledge to make sure all victims and families receive the best support available.

There were many poignant moments today, but perhaps the most memorable one came at the end of the day when I had the honor of recognizing Hans Ephraimson-Abt with an award from the NTSB. Hans lost his daughter in KAL 007 in 1983, and in the 28 years since the accident, he has tirelessly worked to improve the care of transportation accident victims and their families across the globe. In many ways, the gallant, soft-spoken man is the father of family assistance through his work with government officials, airlines, and victims groups. Anyone impacted by an aviation accident has benefited from his steadfast commitment. To me, Hans is the epitome of the family members I have had the privilege of getting to know during my time at the NTSB. They are raising the collective conscience of the aviation industry worldwide, and as they work through the pain of their loss, they make the world better for all of us.

(left to right) Member Rosekind, former Chairman Jim Hall, Hans Ephraimson-Abt, Chairman Hersman, Member Sumwalt, Member Weener

NTSB hosts International Family Assistance Conference

By Debbie Hersman

Chairman Hersman speaking with conference attendees

When there is a major transportation accident —such as a plane crash, a train derailment, or a pipeline explosion — the stories of lives cut short are poignant. And, while many know the work the NTSB does to find out what happened and make recommendations to prevent future accidents, few know about the work our agency does to help family members of accident victims.

Our Transportation Disaster Assistance Division, or TDA, consists of six talented staff members who provide information and access to services for hundreds of family members and survivors from accidents in all modes of transportation each year. They do not do this on their own; but they coordinate services provided by the airlines, other government agencies, the Red Cross, and more.

Over the past year, as I have traveled to international conferences and met with my colleagues, I’ve heard repeatedly about the growing need to create a more formal process internationally for assisting families and survivors. The expectations for family assistance may be different in every country, but I was particularly struck when at the annual International Transportation Safety Board Association’s meeting, my counterparts from around the world looked to NTSB to take the lead in providing guidance and assistance.

This week, we are doing that. We are hosting an International Family Assistance Conference. The conference brings together nearly 300 people from 27 countries and 120 organizations. During the conference the NTSB will provide some information to interested parties about how to build their program, but we also seek to learn from our colleagues from around the world about how we can improve our program.

Our conference also commemorates the 15th anniversary of the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. We’re honored that several family members who were instrumental in passing the legislation are attending the conference. I have learned so much about the importance of family assistance in my 7 years at the NTSB. I have seen incredible grace, strength and compassion from the families and friends of those lost in accidents and indeed, from entire communities in the aftermath of an accident. The video below tells the story of the NTSB’s family assistance program.

NTSB Hosts Volunteer Pilot Safety Seminar

Flying Paws volunteers with their furry passenger

By Debbie Hersman

General James Doolittle led the first American air raid of World War II with all volunteers. He said later, “Nothing is stronger than the heart of a volunteer.” That is so true. Volunteerism in America goes back to our country’s founding 235 years ago, and the spirit of volunteerism is still alive and well.

Today, volunteer pilots transport patients for medical treatment. They also transport donated organs, fly disaster relief flights, patrol our waterways, and perform search-and-rescue missions. These men and women work with the Armed Forces, the Department of Homeland Security, nonprofit organizations, and even other foreign governments to keep people safe. They give of their own time, resources, and equipment to perform these missions, many of which would remain undone were it not for their belief in the importance of the mission, dedication, and self sacrifice.

Sadly, sometimes this dedication can come with painful consequences. The pressures to move patients to where they can receive needed treatment, to get an organ to a hospital on time, or to fly into an unsafe environment so that injured or stranded people can be evacuated can be a powerful motivator that overrides sound judgment about deteriorating weather, pilot currency and proficiency, equipment familiarity, training, and crew resource management.

That’s why the NTSB, along with Angel Flight and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), hosted a Volunteer Pilot Safety Stand Down/Seminar at the NTSB Training Center in Ashburn, Virginia. Two hundred volunteer pilots from a variety of organizations attended this full day of presentations and engaged in discussions about safety issues that directly relate to their missions. Pilots from Angel Flight, Civil Air Patrol, Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flying Paws, and many others attended. I was delighted to present the keynote address to the seminar.

The NTSB participated in this important training symposium because it addresses critical safety issues. During our accident investigations, we repeatedly see the tragic consequences of poor decision making. Through events like this, we can share what we’ve learned with pilots in the hope that the lessons can help prevent the same mistakes from happening in the future. With a renewed awareness of aviation’s inherent dangers, we want pilots to safely fly these important missions and continue that spirit of volunteerism.

NASA Administrator Bolden Kicks off NTSB Speaker Series

By Robert Sumwalt

On March 17, the NTSB kicked off our inaugural Speakers Series for employees. The Speakers Series is intended to highlight some of the most distinguished individuals from the fields of transportation safety, leadership, and technology.

NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr.

For our inaugural speaker, we could not have found a more engaging or dynamic individual than NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. In the span of one hour, we travelled from the earth to space and back, as the Administrator took us on a journey from his childhood home in Columbia, South Carolina, to orbiting the Earth as an astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle.

By recounting the emotional experience of playing quarterback in his high school championship football game hours after learning that President Kennedy had been assassinated, Administrator Bolden shared how that experience helped shaped his views on leadership, motivation, and service to country. Administrator Bolden also talked about the unique challenges he later faced as a member of NASA’s astronaut program and how those challenges provided opportunities for personal growth. Whether he was conducting science experiments in zero-gravity or commanding a Space Shuttle mission, each situation tested him physically, mentally, and intellectually.

Administrator Bolden with Bryce Stephens

Perhaps the highlight came, when Administrator Bolden singled out in the audience Bryce Stephens, the seven-year-old son of NTSB Chief Information Security Officer Chris Stephens. The Administrator challenged Bryce to apply himself in school, pursue his dreams, and predicted that one day Bryce might even walk on Mars.

Administrator Bolden has set the bar high for future Speakers Series lecturers. The staff of the NTSB look forward to gathering on Wednesday, June 22, to hear from author, pilot, and ABC News aviation analyst John Nance as our next Speakers Series guest.

Robert L. Sumwalt has been a Member of the NTSB since 2006. Through his initiative the NTSB Speakers’ Series was created in 2011. Working with a committee of NTSB staff members, he identifies and invites outstanding individuals to share their stories with federal employees.

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