Clearing the Air
“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”
“…and I said, ‘Mr. President, we had an accident today. It’s a disaster.’ And his first response was, ‘Where are the families? Are you taking care of them?…'”
— An excerpt from the recollections of former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe. “Comm Check” – A book on the in-flight break-up of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
In the September SM4 newsletter I discussed the corporate culture of readiness and responsibility. I proposed that it is a trait that is reserved for the most successful of organizations. This article and many that follow will present a “get real” approach to the subject of post-accident family assistance. I will put some face cards on the table.
It is hard for me to write dispassionately about real world family assistance. I’ve seen well-meaning organizations do wrong things and the results are sometimes downright hurtful. Fortunately though, I have many more examples of people doing the right thing at the right time. The difference in the long term result is dramatic.
The paragraphs that follow contain a general discussion on perhaps the most essential response element in your plan—addressing the needs of victims and their families. I will begin by establishing some core principles. This article offers the ground floor things you need to know as an operator to begin building this portion of your emergency response plan.
Looking for an expert in Family Assistance?
Sorry, there is no such thing. At the beginning of each family assistance training program I make the following point: despite having participated in the response to over one hundred major accidents and incidents, (often as a central coordinator of family assistance) I am no expert. Those who take on this role know that there are no real family assistance experts, no badges of honor and no heroes.
Any person who asserts they are an expert in post accident family assistance is fooling themselves and those they are attempting to assist. Claiming expert status in response to traumatic loss is equivalent to claiming that you are an expert in uncertainty, poor information, shifting priorities, and the ever-changing facets of human behavior. And you might as well toss in proposed expertise in the technical complexities of aeronautics gone wrong, and convoluted unknowns. If you are a family assistance expert please identify yourself. You have been hiding for far too long!
Those of us who have continually been immersed in the “on the ground” operational aspects of family assistance try to be marshals of information and experience, rather than experts. The good news is that no one needs to be an expert to provide effective family assistance. Some of the most profound and compassionate acts of post-accident support have come from those with no formal degree or certification in grief and trauma, or mental health.
Bargaining with time.
You cannot change what has already happened, though surely you will wish you could. Nor can you significantly change the factual information that will arise from the investigation. Think of effective post accident response as a mathematical equation. Forty percent of the operation you cannot change or even influence in a major way—it “is what it is.” Certainly response can be managed poorly, and that will have a profoundly negative impact on your organization. But even with an effective response, you can’t necessarily make the situation any better than it is.
The remaining sixty percent—the combination of your public stance and your effectiveness in coordinating the human element—is directly under your control and responsibility. These two parts are inherently linked and are the most central to how your organizational brand will be viewed after an accident.
Think of it this way—being prepared to assist victims and families allows you to publicly tell one small, but overtly positive story within the morass of negativity. Why would anyone deprive themselves of at least this one opportunity?
So if it is family assistance… what is a “family”?
Good luck if you ever try to define what a family is on behalf of someone else! I see references to “next of kin” (NOK) in a lot of plans and industry presentations on the subject of family assistance. NOK is a legal term used in probate matters and determines heir to inheritance and other estate matters. If your plan indicates next of kin, then you have indicated that your intentions are to provide assistance solely to those person(s) of defined legal significance.
Instead of thinking along the lines of “next of kin” or immediate family, identify those who are connected to the accident by emotional consequence. Then, develop a small procedural plan for each of the affected populations on the aircraft, and if applicable, on the ground:
- Families, relatives and close friends
- Employees and peers who knew those onboard
- Other internal and external individuals who are emotionally impacted
Assist those affected by the accident by having a plan, make sure that plan is supported by trained teams—then work the plan.
What is first in the chronology of effective family assistance?
First, families need timely and compassionate notification of the event. Your team should be ready to begin notification within one hour of you becoming aware of an accident or incident. The media moves fast, you have to be faster. Think of it this way: in the interest of time, notification is done by phone, condolences are done in person.
You won’t have much to say at first, and that is OK—the additional information will come, and your process should match that reality. Right now you want families to be able to say we heard from [insert brand] right away, and they stayed connected to us throughout the hardest period. Notification, when done well, sets the stage for everything else that follows.
Unfortunately, family assistance is often presented with an air of complexity and shrouded by negative examples meant to elicit “shock and awe”. In terms of operational process for your plans, you will find that family assistance is really not that complex. We have barely scratched the surface here, so I will make you a promise: you stick with this newsletter, and I will fill in the holes as we move ahead. In the next issue we will look at what comes after initial notification.
In the meantime, if you are outpacing the newsletter in your planning, use the SM4 channel to ask your questions and forward your comments. I will make sure you get the best answers from the best folks in the business.
Notable Quotes on Family Assistance and relevant reflections:
They will remember you, not by what you said or did, but by how you made them feel.
—An adaptation from a quote attributed to (Carl) Frederick Buechner, author and novelist.
I will tell you the truth—even if it is hard to hear. That is what I owe you.
—Deborah A.P. Hersman, then Member of the NTSB during a briefing to the Comair Flight 5191 families.
There is a difference between post accident human relations and everything else in aviation … that is to never let perfect get in the way of really good.
—A mantra that is often repeated at the NTSB Academy/Training Center.
Family Assistance resources for further reading:
For general aviation accidents, a member of the NTSB Transportation Disaster Assistance staff may arrive on-scene; if not, the Investigator-in-Charge (IIC) typically provides information. The following resources describe how the NTSB approaches family assistance and the types of information they provide:
Read about the beginnings of family assistance in aviation:
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.
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Due to a greater prevalence of “critical events” compared to higher-status “emergency response plan-activating events,” we propose that critical events pose a powerful opportunity for practicing and refining emergency response procedures. We also feel organizations should “over-respond” to critical events out of an abundance of caution.
Your view on what constitutes an emergency is significantly shaped by your education, training, life and career experience and by the scope of your responsibilities and job functions.