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Promising Practices

Grassroots efforts by family members who lost loved ones in aviation crashes have led to the development of a coordinated response to assist family members in the aftermath of mass-fatality events. A large number of family members approached the NTSB chairman during the public hearing that followed the 1994 tragedy involving USAir Flight 427 out of Pittsburgh. After sharing their stories about how they were treated after losing their loved ones in aviation crashes, these family members expressed the need for one agency to lead a coordinated crisis response to reduce the chaos they had experienced.

While every mass-fatality event will present unique challenges, all will present the constant challenge of trying to provide for the basic needs of the victims’ family members. This challenge is best met through the work of the family assistance center. In Oklahoma City, the establishment of the family assistance center was made possible through the collaboration of government agencies, family members, and industry. A family assistance center provides a special place in which services can be delivered and information can be gathered from family members in a sensitive and timely manner. Above all, the family assistance center’s most important function is to provide a private place for families to grieve.

On September 9, 1996, then-President Bill Clinton, in an Executive memorandum, designated NTSB as the coordinator of federal services to victims and their families in major transportation disasters. As the designated responsible agency, NTSB ensures that the following family services will be provided in a sensitive and timely manner: notification of the accident, updates about search and recovery efforts, updates about the investigation, delivery of mental health support, and establishment of a place in which victims’ families can grieve in private.

Families affected by past aviation disasters became the driving force behind the creation of new legislation called the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 (49 U.S.C. § 1136). Family members were asked to participate on a task force that generated 61 recommendations that were presented to the Federal Government, the airline industry, and other organizations about how to treat and better assist the victims of major aviation accidents and their families.5

Pursuant to the Act, NTSB created the Office of Family Affairs and assigned it the responsibility for coordinating the provision of federal services to victims and their families after major aviation disasters. While coordination for these services is outlined in the Federal Family Assistance Plan for Aviation Disasters (to find out more about this plan, visit www.ntsb.gov), the principles and resources are applicable to any mass fatality. A brief summary of the victim support tasks performed by various agencies follows.

National Transportation Safety Board

  • Coordinates federal assistance efforts with local and state authorities.
  • Coordinates and conducts briefings for victims’ families and friends to provide information about resources for recovery, progress of the investigation, and identification of victims and their personal effects and belongings.
  • Coordinates with the investigator in charge of the accident and local and state authorities to try to arrange a family visit to the crash site or to an appropriate alternative site.


  • Notifies the families of passengers in a timely manner that their relatives may have been on the flight.
  • Secures a facility to establish a family assistance center in which family members can receive investigative updates, support, and protection from the media.
  • Supports logistically those family members who want to travel to the accident city and maintains contact with the families who stay at home.

American Red Cross

  • Coordinates the mental health services and emotional care and support for
    families as designated by NTSB.
  • Manages and coordinates volunteer and support services.
  • Arranges suitable interfaith memorial services.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, supported by U.S. Department of Defense

  • Assists with victim identification, mortuary support, and the setup of temporary morgue facilities if the medical examiner or coroner reports insufficient resources
    to support the operation.
  • Provides experienced personnel to collect antemortem information from the
    victims’ next of kin.
  • Assists the designated medical examiner or coroner with notifying victims’
    families of positive identification, providing particular expertise in explaining
    how identification was made.

U.S. Department of State

  • Assists foreign families and interested parties with translations.
  • Aids with collection of antemortem medical and dental radiographs and records
    from non-U.S. passengers.
  • Assists in returning the deceased to their native countries.

Federal Emergency Management Agency

  • Provides communications assets in the event the accident site is in a remote location and there is no way to convey information.
  • Provides personnel to assist with disseminating public information.
  • Assists in the event of an urban aviation disaster.

U.S. Department of Justice

  • Provides, on request, the FBI Disaster
  • Squad to assist local jurisdictions with fingerprint identification for criminal and noncriminal events.

  • Provides information, through the Office for Victims of Crime, to victims of criminal acts and their families about programs to which they are entitled.

As previously mentioned, a victim-sensitive crisis response plan for addressing mass fatalities had been developed prior to the Oklahoma City bombing. This plan was developed in reaction to the 1986 Edmund, Oklahoma, U.S. Post Office shooting of 14 employees and to the state’s long history of mass fatalities from tornadoes. The plan was put to the test after the Oklahoma City bombing, and it served well. In fact, many consider the victim response in Oklahoma City to have set a standard for responding to mass-casualty incidents. The effectiveness of the Oklahoma City Compassion Center as a central gathering place and a place to meet the special needs of disaster victims won the center recognition as a promising practice. Within the past 10 years, family assistance has evolved and continues to grow. Once nonexistent, family assistance is now a major part of crisis response efforts after mass fatalities.

Family assistance operations face a major challenge as they work with victims and families from many countries and cultures. In many ways, multicultural issues complicate the family assistance effort, from basic communication to sensitive cultural differences. This has an impact on recovery and investigative efforts. Having had experience in several major aviation accidents, NTSB was able to provide valuable insight about multicultural issues. Important considerations include the proper formatting of first and last names and recording correctly the spelling differences in similar sounding names. This is particularly important when recording family information and creating records that will be referenced by many agencies. When working with families from other cultures, the family assistance operation needs to note information about the family’s religious or spiritual beliefs, including practices and rituals, daily prayer times, important dates, beliefs about autopsy, and other information that may be relevant to the rescue, recovery, and disposition of their loved ones. For guidance in emergency situations like this, it may be beneficial to consult a leader of the appropriate religious or spiritual community or contact the American Red Cross, which provides contacts with national chaplain organizations that can provide interdenominational perspective.

Other resources with information on handling mass fatalities include the Mass Fatalities Incident Response Course at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Maryland,6 and NTSB’s Federal Family Assistance Plan for Aviation Disasters. The NTSB plan describes airline and federal responses to an aviation crash involving a significant number of passenger fatalities and/or injuries. DMORT, part of the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), may be dispatched through NTSB or the Federal Response Plan to mass-fatality incidents throughout the country on request by the medical examiner or coroner at the disaster. The DMORT experts and equipment can respond within a few hours of a request. For more information about training and all aspects of mass fatalities, contact NDMS by calling 1–800–USA–NDMS.


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Providing Relief to Families After a Mass Fatality
November 2002
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