A Clear Chain Of Command

A candlelight memorial service for the 12 miners who died in a mine explosion at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, W.Va., is held at the Sago Baptist Church Wednesday evening Jan. 4, 2006.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
This column was written by former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board Jim Hall.
There were two tragedies in Sago, West Virginia: The deaths of 12 miners, and the horrific communication errors.

During my tenure as Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I learned that planning for disaster is one of the most important functions of government and a fundamental responsibility of any employer. The most critical element in any disaster plan is to establish a clear chain of command to deal with it, with one of the highest priorities being communication with victims' families.

Through my involvement with accident investigations at the NTSB, I realized that our federal government had no effective plan in place to ensure that family members of transportation disasters were treated as a top priority.

This became painfully clear in the aftermath of the USAir Flight 427 and TWA Flight 800 accidents in the mid 1990s. In both cases, I met with family members of the victims, and was appalled to hear accounts of their treatment. Most disappointing was the fact that there was no clear line of communication to the families, and often it was difficult to determine whose interests were considered the top priority. One thing was for certain: it wasn't the families.

These tragedies were the impetus for the creation of the Family Assistance Act, which designated the NTSB as the coordinator of federal services for families of major transportation disasters in the United States. I am proud to say that the Act has had a significant positive impact on the way families are treated.

Detailed, formal policies regarding the creation of a family support operations center, victim identification, family notification, family counseling, media relations and guidelines to assist communication between government, public safety agencies, and private entities such as airlines are a few of the most important pieces now in place.

As we saw in the West Virginia case, in this era of the 24-hour news cycle it is increasingly important to have a communications plan in place prior to a crisis to ensure that news is distributed accurately from one designated source. When no one is in charge, suddenly anyone can become a spokesperson for no other reason than the ability to maneuver in front of cameras.

Based on our successful experience in transportation, I would argue that it's the government's responsibility to create the structure for communication with families and the media in cases — such as in transportation or mining — where there is governmental regulatory responsibility. As news outlets seek to fill hours of available programming with whatever information they can collect, even unverified information trumps no information at all. We must be mindful that in the rush to feed the 24-hour news machine, the facts get can left behind, and family members — whether they're grieving or celebrating — can be exploited.

It should never have been possible for an overheard phone call to cause church bells to ring, family members to weep with joy, and newspapers to print erroneous headlines. There have been two tragedies already. A third one would be to fail to establish a family assistance act for the mining industry.

Jim Hall was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994-2001. He now heads Hall & Associates LLC, a safety and security consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C.

By Jim Hall