Clearing the Air on Family Assistance, Part III: If The Unthinkable Happens, Will We Be In It Alone?

Donald J. Chupp

By Donald J. Chupp
President, Fireside Partners Inc.

Posted on July 1, 2011
Microphones on a podium

In your response plan development, you should decide whether to provide family assistance on your own, entrust assistance support to a service provider, or develop a hybrid approach.

Recent mishap responses are driving changes in the field of family assistance. Two high profile disasters redefined our approaches to family assistance: the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the in-flight explosion of TWA Flight 800. These two events helped us understand that effective family assistance is rarely a one-organization affair. Due to the complexity and speed at which information (verified or otherwise) moves, professional support is almost always required.

In the first instance—the bombing in Oklahoma City—the live, 24-hour news cycle became a significant factor for the first time. News spread rapidly, but no specific information about any single victim was available. The disaster site became almost magnetic. The families of the victims gravitated toward the site with great urgency and angst. City officials had to answer immediate challenges. What do we do when the families get here? What do we tell them? Who can we turn to for help?

The Oklahoma City Office of Emergency Management established the city’s Family Assistance Center (a.k.a “The Compassion Center”) six hours and 28 minutes after the explosion. The Center’s support was provided by multiple organizations, including the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Oklahoma Funeral Directors Association, pastors, chaplains and mental health professionals. The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Oklahoma National Guard provided security for the Center.

One year and three months after the Oklahoma City bombing, TWA 800 exploded off the coast of New York. The 24-hour news cycle came into play, and families once again rushed to the scene but there was one major difference. When the families arrived by the hundreds, there was nothing to see. The accident wreckage was located under 88 feet of ocean water. Specific information was difficult to come by and the media contributed to the confusion. The reaction of one family member, as quoted in Newsweek says it all:

“For some, the strain turned into anger. On Tuesday, the Governor announced that divers had found dozens of [remains], possibly a hundred. When the NTSB contradicted this, saying that it had made no such find, a few families lashed out. Already angered at TWA’s initial delays in naming the passengers on the flight, they confronted the governor and the NTSB. Tell us what you know, now, demanded one family member, who further railed at having to get his information from CNN.”

These two events illuminate the realities of non-stop news coverage and the way our modern communication systems create challenges in family assistance. The use of Twitter and other social media will only make things more complicated. Regardless of the scale of the event, we must be more proactive about family support, getting ahead and staying ahead of the media, including decisions about the involvement of service providers in our emergency response plans, making sure the service provider fits our organizational culture.

General aviation organizations fall into one of three categories. Which one most closely represents your culture and approach?

Independent and Prepared: “These are our crew, and our passengers. No external organization can represent our culture and our brand as well as we can. We should be internally prepared to provide for the full range of family assistance needs.”

Pro/Con: Builds a very valuable internal resource. Although operational control is all but ensured, the advantage of outside and objective expertise may be lost.

Self-aware and Realistic: “We recognize our responsibilities, yet we also recognize that our expertise is in the operation of aircraft, not in family assistance. We should put this activity entirely in the hands of an organization that is specially trained and prepared for family assistance.”

Pro/Con: A gain in outside resources. The gain could be counteracted by the loss of operational control. Organizations must stay involved and must take time to understand the process enough to know when it is not working.

Self-aware with Some Internal Resources: “We acknowledge the responsibility to be prepared and respond. To meet that responsibility we have some internal training and expertise in family assistance. But for the most effective response possible, we need a relationship with a vetted service provider to augment our corporate response by providing additional resources and expertise.”

Pro/Con: This is a balanced approach; but, it requires careful selection of a service provider in order to yield the greatest value and peace of mind. Identifying and vetting providers can be difficult.

If you consider your organization to be independent and prepared, you should carefully (and honestly) evaluate your “bench strength.” A large fractional operator may decide that it has a sufficiently large employee base to support the development of internal family assistance teams. The current industry standard recommends that no less than two (known also as the “buddy system”) trained family assistance volunteers are required for every victim’s family. These volunteers must be carefully selected and evaluated for emotional and social strengths that will be required in a difficult and challenging environment. 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. Four family members for each passenger.

A small operator with one or two aircraft and a few employees may decide it isn’t able to develop its own team. They will fall into the second category. But any flight department, no matter how small, can define themselves as a reflection of the third category if they have supplementary support from the corporate side.

If you decide to contract for support, there are at least four things to remember regardless of how you define your organization:

  1. Always retain the ability to direct the support process. Never completely relinquish control of something as important to your organization’s reputation as family assistance.
  2. Some parts of the family assistance process should always involve the resources of a service provider. Specifically, the areas of remains repatriation and personal effects processing. You simply do not want your employees involved in these processes. That said, item 1 still applies.
  3. Be very clear about what a vendor will provide—and what they will not provide. Be very clear about what it will cost and who will pay the bills. Make certain your contract for service reflects these details.
  4. Know which questions to ask of any potential service provider. Look for the Global Aerospace Family Assistance from Service Providers—A Resource Guide for General Aviation Operators to be published in June, 2011.

Overall, your service provider should have expertise in aviation and should deliver appropriate services. Providers who work primarily with airlines may not be a good fit for a Part 91 operator. Do your homework and contact other operators who have used the provider. If possible, the list of references should include one or two that have been supported in the aftermath of an actual mishap.

Contract vendors are not the sole source of outside assistance. You should carefully research and understand the support that can be provided by local law enforcement, clergy, hospital social workers and the Red Cross. 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. Get to know these folks before you need them.

Fireside Partners Inc. Fireside Partners Inc.
Fireside Partners, Inc., is a fully integrated emergency services provider designed to provide all services and resources required to respond effectively and compassionately in a crisis situation. Dedicated to building world-class emergency response programs (ERP), Fireside instills confidence, resiliency and readiness for high-net worth and high-visibility individuals and businesses. Fireside provides a broad array of services focused on prevention and on-site support to help customers protect their most important assets: their people and their good name.

© 2023 Fireside Partners Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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