emergency family assistance

October 2, 2020 / Articles

Achieving Clarity on Emergency Family Assistance, Part II: NTSB and Family Assistance

“When it comes to working with survivors and family members, I recognize that there are resource limitations, cultural sensitivities and, quite frankly, emotional anxiety. But I will tell you three things:

  1. It is the right thing to do;
  2. You can’t afford NOT to do it; and
  3. You will likely see some incredible strength and grace from your fellow man (and perhaps yourself) in the process.”

This excerpt comes from the remarks of the Honorable Deborah A.P. Hersman, Chairman National Transportation Safety Board to the International Air Safety Seminar, Milan, Italy November 2, 2010.

Back in 2011, the NTSB released many speeches, forums and courses related to family assistance, in part to mark the 15th Anniversary of the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, a trailblazing piece of commercial airline legislation. At the same time, the European Union was beginning a journey toward independence in accident investigations and putting more emphasis on family assistance programs. All of this activity pointed to a deeper realization that family assistance is at the heart of emergency response.

Part 91 and Part 135 operations have no equivalent family assistance regulation. But that doesn’t mean that operators can or do ignore the needs of victims and their families in business aviation accidents.

Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1966 and the Building Blocks of an Assistance Program

Since the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1966, aviation stakeholders have continually worked to improve how we care for families following an accident. From our experience, the “building blocks” of an effective family assistance program are:

  • Defining what “family assistance” is
    The first step in being able to provide family assistance is getting clarity on what that means. What is it? Where does it begin and end? How is success defined?

    We’ve found that a good definition of family assistance is that it is a comprehensive set of processes used by trained personnel to provide information and resources to the families of accident victims, from the time an accident is confirmed to the time that a victim is transitioned to their own support network or home location.

  • Performing notification
    The first action in an emergency family assistance response is notification. People who had loved ones aboard an aircraft must be told about the event. You must perform this critical step quickly, while acknowledging that it will take time for all of the details associated with the incident to become available.

    It’s important to note that many Emergency Response Plans (ERPs) specify that there should be no communication with family members until the condition of the passengers and crew can be confirmed. This is unfair to families, and any language to this effect should be removed from your plan. Families have a right to know about an accident as soon as you’ve confirmed that it occurred.

  • Humanizing the process
    Trained personnel should meet with family members as soon as possible. They deserve in-person contact, and it also demonstrates the core values of your brand. If family members choose to stay at home, personnel should travel to that location. Either way, your organization should ensure that families are provided with the appropriate resources and information as they work to cope with the post-accident realities.
  • Reaching closure and completion
    It’s important to define a marker for the end of the initial family assistance process. This separation should be done both professionally and compassionately. The logical point in time for this event is when the person involved in the accident is released from the hospital, or in the case of a fatality, when the deceased’s body is released by the coroner to the family.

Aviation Disaster Family Assistance: Internal, External or Hybrid?

As you develop your ERP, you’ll need to decide whether to provide family assistance on your own, entrust those activities to a service provider, or go with a hybrid approach. While any of these strategies can be effective, aviation organizations today increasingly lean toward using the services of an outside provider. This is the case largely because of the speed at which information (verified or otherwise) moves.

Two incidents that occurred just over a year apart a quarter century ago —the bombing in Oklahoma City and the explosion and crash of TWA 800 off the coast of New York—played a major role in redefining family assistance. They drove home the fact that the new era of non-stop news coverage would require changes in how family assistance was provided. Later, the ubiquity of social media only made things more challenging, of course.

What we’ve learned is that we must get ahead and stay ahead of the media by being more proactive about family support. That includes making decisions about the involvement of service providers, documenting those decisions in our emergency response plans and making sure the service provider fits our organizational culture.

How Does Your Organization Address Family Assistance?

General aviation organizations tend to fall into one of three categories regarding family assistance. Which one most closely represents your approach?

  • Prepared and self-sufficient. “These are our crew members, and our passengers. No external organization can represent our culture and our brand like we can. We must be fully prepared to provide holistic family assistance.”

    Pros/Cons: Readiness to provide family assistance is a valuable internal resource. However, the advantage of outside and objective expertise may be lost.

  • Self-aware and realistic: “We recognize our responsibilities, but also that our expertise is in aviation not in family assistance. We should rely on an organization that is specially trained and prepared for family assistance.”

    Pros/Cons: This approach means you gain an outside ally and resource. However, this advantage could be offset by the loss of operational control. Organizations must stay involved and monitor the process so they can raise concerns when it is not working.

  • Self-aware and leveraging some internal resources: “We know we have a responsibility to be prepared and respond, and we have some internal training and expertise in family assistance. However, for the most effective response possible, we need assistance from an experienced service provider.”

    Pros/Cons: This is a balanced approach. However, it requires careful vetting and selection of a service provider. Identifying and evaluating providers can be difficult.

If you feel you fall into the first category, you should thoroughly evaluate your “bench strength.” A large operator may decide that it has enough employees to support the development of internal family assistance teams. The current industry standard recommends that no fewer than two trained family assistance volunteers be available for every victim’s family. Note: Two is the minimum, and in some cases the concept of “family” is broad. On average, we can expect a ratio of 4:1 in terms of family members for each passenger.

A small operator with few employees may decide it isn’t able to create and support its own team. They will fall into the second category. However, flight departments of any size can see themselves in the third category if they have supplementary support from the corporate side.

Key Considerations When Capitalizing on Outside Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Services

If you decide to contract for family assistance support, there are certain things to remember regardless of how you define your organization:

  • Always retain the right and readiness to direct the support process. Never completely relinquish control of something as important to your organization’s reputation as family assistance.
  • Activities like repatriation of remains and personal effects processing should involve a service provider. You do not want your employees involved in these processes.
  • Be sure you understand what a vendor will provide and what they will not provide. Also, be very clear about what the services will cost and who will pay the bills, and ensure these details are in the contract.
  • Develop a list of questions to ask potential service providers, and use it consistently in every interview.

In general, the service provider you select should have expertise in aviation and should deliver all the services you need. Keep in mind that companies that work primarily with airlines may not be a good fit for a Part 91 operator.

Be sure to contact other operators who have used the provider. If possible, this should include one or two that have been supported in the wake of an actual mishap.

In addition, be aware that contract vendors are not the only source of outside assistance. Support can be provided by local law enforcement, clergy, hospital social workers and the Red Cross among others. Although there are limits to what these organizations and people can do after an aviation accident, don’t discount the value they bring to the response equation. And, be sure to connect with these organizations before you need them.