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Remarks NTSB International Family Assistance Conference, Washington, DC
Deborah A. P. Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB International Family Assistance Conference, Washington, DC

Thank you, Paul, for that introduction and for all your hard work coordinating this conference. On behalf of the entire NTSB, thank all of you for attending this conference.

Today we welcome attendees from 27 countries and 120 different organizations. In the audience are:

  • Family members and survivors of transportation accidents.
  • Individuals from disaster services organizations and associations that represent transportation employees.
  • From the private sector, we have representatives from domestic and international air carriers, airport authorities, rail operators, cruise lines, attorneys and insurance underwriters.
  • And from the public sector, we have a number of officials from civilian and military agencies, as well as the legislative branch.
  • Finally, it is a particular pleasure to welcome my colleagues from other transportation accident investigation agencies around the world; it is through my work with them that we recognized a conference like this was needed.

Each of you in attendance represents a valued voice and we look forward to your participation today as we examine how to best support those affected by transportation accidents.

Many of you know that we are celebrating the Cherry Blossom Festival this week in Washington. These beautiful trees date back nearly one hundred years. In 1912, the cherry trees were a gift of goodwill and friendship from the Japanese people. While the beauty of the blooms is quite fragile, each year the trees symbolize a renewal of life.

I'd like to acknowledge our friends from the Japanese Safety Board who are here with us this week. I know that everyone in this room joins me in conveying our thoughts and best wishes to all of the Japanese people as you recover from the major disasters that struck your nation a few weeks ago. We are seeing many challenging situations around the globe that serve as a reminder of how precious life is. But they also remind us that no matter what corner of the globe you hail from, people look to the government for assistance in times of disaster.

As many of you know, fifteen years ago, the United States Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. The landmark legislation provided crucial and comprehensive support for those who lost loved ones in aviation accidents … as well as for those who survived.

Indeed, the legislation's passage was in large part due to the family members, survivors, and friends who channeled their tragedy into action. Since 1996, in addition to having investigators figure out what caused the accident, we now have a cadre of professionals that focus on how to best serve the needs of those most affected by transportation accidents.

The NTSB has about 400 employees. Our Transportation Disaster Assistance Division, or TDA as we call it, consists of 6 talented staff members. They provide information and access to services for hundreds of family members and survivors every year from accidents in all modes of transportation. Our TDA team works very hard to assist family members, but the truth is, they cannot do it alone. Their effectiveness depends on partnerships — on relationships — that extend far beyond the walls of this room or the confines of this city. Air carriers; government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels; the American Red Cross; and others, work in concert with our TDA team to ensure the needs of family members are met.

It is in this spirit of teamwork and partnership that we designed this conference. The full agenda was crafted to develop a comprehensive picture of family assistance and the larger context in which it fits. But we recognize that there are many ways to provide assistance, so we also want to learn from you — our panelists and our audience.

Today we also acknowledge the extraordinary advances in international family assistance over the last 15 years. In 2001, the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, created Circular 285 which provides guidance on assistance to accidents victims and their family members. Today, we are working with a new international task force to update that document, and the team's work should be completed shortly.

In recent years, Brazil, South Korea, and China enacted aviation family assistance legislation. Australia adopted family assistance by voluntary code. And, just last year, the European Union passed family assistance legislation - that encompasses twenty-seven countries. This is incredible progress. Hopefully this conference will help continue to advance and support this important agenda.

While the accidents we address involve different modes of transportation and different circumstances, they all have one thing in common: Survivors or loved ones are left behind. Expectations for family assistance will be different in every country, but we all share a common obligation to our fellow man: Assistance must be given.

I have learned so much about the importance of family assistance in almost 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. They remind all of us that we are our brothers' keepers.

I know that this is a new responsibility for many of you and it may seem daunting, but I can assure you that not only is treating others the way you would want your family to be treated, the right thing to do, but in the end, you will likely get far more out of it than you can imagine.

We have put together a video about why we needed to provide services for survivors and families and what our program has matured into here in the US. Perhaps you will identify your role or organization as we review our journey of the last 15 years.

Again, welcome and thank you for being here today.