NTSB makes crash scene investigation cool

Monday - 7/12/2010, 10:50am EDT

Debbie Hersman, Chair, NTSB

Click below to hear the interview

Download mp3

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

While the President tries to "make government cool again," one very small 350-employee agency is pulling that off every day. Chair Debbie Hersman tells Federal News Radio the National Transportation Safety Board is "small but mighty" because of its federal workforce.

"We are such a small organization," said Hersman, "but I think that's part of what makes us effective. We're very nimble. Our staff really are like renaissance men and women: many of them can do it all."

But that doesn't mean they're out grabbing the headlines. "We're an agency that people don't often see. We're behind the scenes most of the time, but we have made transportation safer for people, many times when they didn't even know it."

Among the NTSB's highlights from the year's activity described in the 2009 Annual Report to Congress are 240 new safety recommendations across all transportation modes, 13 major accident launches and the release of 19 major investigative reports.

Hersman said NTSB employees are driven. "To a person, everyone who works at the safety board is curious and they have a passion for safety. Everybody wants to figure out what happened."

For example, said Hersman, when investigators go to an accident site they're "completely focused about documenting evidence and finding what happened, because they are really doing this so that it doesn't happen again so that no one else has to experience" what they have experienced.

She likens the work the NTSB does as being "kind of like the CSI of transportation safety." Investigators, said Hersman, have the gift of looking at accidents and being able to "explain it in a way that the public can understand, and I think that sometimes when you get into really technical issues, that's a challenge."

Hersman told the Federal Drive she's been a federal employee for almost 20 years and enjoyed every day of it.

I always tell people that I loved reading Nancy Drew novels when I was a little girl. Since I've come to the safety board, I kind of feel like I get to be a big Nancy Drew and get to look and understand things. I've read these reports. We've got a board meeting coming up...on a Continental accident at Denver International Airport. And I'll tell you, when I pick up one of these reports, it's like picking up a mystery and all of the pieces of the puzzle come together with the staff's work. Everybody does their little piece of it and they create this story so that you really can understand what happened. I always look forward to reading the reports.

And transparency is nothing new at the NTSB. With each report issued, "the public gets to see what we did."

Hersman credits having "an outstanding mission" for part of the board's success, but most of all, she said"it's having people who have integrity and a passion for what they do that really builds that reputation."