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Online Extra

Family Assistance Planning – An Essential Element of Emergency Response

When an aircraft is involved in a serious accident, families of those killed or injured normally want immediate information as to the fate of their loved ones. But many flight departments have no family assistance plan (FAP) in place to provide immediate answers and follow-up assistance.

"Providing family assistance in the wake of an accident or incident should not be considered an afterthought, but rather an essential element of the flight department's safety management system and emergency response plan," said Jo Damato, NBAA's director, operations and educational development. "We encourage our Members to take advantage of seminars, web conferences and other opportunities that NBAA is consistently offering on this subject, in order to develop a—proactive – rather than a reactive – plan."

Damato pointed to a recent live webinar, presented as an education session during NBAA's Annual Meeting & Convention in Atlanta, that focused on the issue. Entitled, "Prepare Your Flight Department: Family Assistance Response After An Accident/Incident" the forum provided several tips and tools for preparing a family assistance, plan, including the recommendation that Members carefully examine the Family Assistance Act of 1996, which mandates the establishment of FAPs by FAR Part 121 air carriers. "A company can incorporate best practices for an FAP by equaling or exceeding the requirements of the Act," Damato noted.

Dr. Carolyn Coarsey, president of the non-profit Family Assistance Foundation, and vice president of corporate philosophy for Aviem International, Inc. in Atlanta, stressed that when no effective FAP is in place, it sends a message that the company is only partially aware of what its responsibilities are to its passengers, employees and their families following an accident.

"But if the corporate leadership steps forward with all its resources to help the surviving family members within the first few hours of an accident, it tells these families that their needs are now the primary focus of the company, " she said.

Dr. Coarsey reported that there are several basic features that every FAP should incorporate, starting with a comprehensive communications plan as a key component.

"The company must ensure that all the parties involved know how to get information," she explained. "That means the first thing you need to know is how you will handle phone calls from the public and news media in the first few hours after the accident; and how will you handle the outbound calls you will need to make to the families of those on the plane. Make sure that a phone number is established so that people who need to get information can call within a short time after an accident has happened."

The plan, said Dr. Coarsey, should include media relations, in order to inform the media about what has happened, and what is being done, as information becomes known.

"Also, the company should understand what its role will be in the investigative process, because the families will want to know that the company is participating with all officials in a transparent manner."

Upon completion of the investigation, Dr. Coarsey recommends that company representatives inform the families that the National Transportation Safety Board will make the results of the investigation available to all interested parties. This, she explained, is particularly important, especially if there are lessons learned and measures taken to prevent a similar accident from happening. "If people know that something good has come out of the situation, that will help the healing process in the long term."

Ultimately, Dr. Coarsey added, an effective FAP may make a difference in any subsequent litigation following the accident. "When you have a proactive family assistance plan, it decreases the animosity of the survivors toward the company,” she said. “It appears that by lessening the anger, the focus of the survivors is shifted more toward what the losses were, and not on ways to punish the company."

In fact, according to John Averill, vice president of the Aerospace Division of Orlando-based Insurance Office of America, insurance companies are starting to appreciate the positive benefits of having an FAP.

"When a company has a formal family assistance plan, that indicates it is usually very proactive about implementing loss-control measures," said Averill. "While no formal study exists to say that the payouts after an accident will be less, the belief is that they would be, based on evidence of the way survivors and their families react when this type of program is in place. In other words, there is higher likelihood that there will be a reduced settlement."

Averill added that, in his opinion, an FAP – in combination with other underwriting criteria – may result in "very competitive premium costs."

But having an FAP may come down to more than what impacts the bottom line, as Dr. Coarsey explained.

"When an accident happens, an FAP gives the company an opportunity to show that there is 'a heart behind the corporate logo,' and that they are ready to help. The employees want to be proud of who they work for."

In that regard, having an FAP can underscore a company's commitment to its customers and employees. That, in fact, is the reason why Citation Air has continued to develop its FAP since 2005, using a "Care Team" of volunteers who are trained to work with families in an emergency.

"We view a family assistance plan as a key component of a transportation company's emergency response plan," said Karena Kefalas, CitationAir's senior vice president-human resources. "While family assistance plans are not mandated for all transportation companies, we believe that it reaffirms our responsibility to support our customers and employees," she said.

Developing Effective FAP Procedures

One NBAA Member Company believes in using different procedures for notifying the families of passengers and crewmembers involved in an accident. The operator also has different notification protocols depending on whether the mishap resulted in minor or no injuries, or serious injuries and fatalities.

This company's plan calls for the flight department to be directly involved with crewmember family notification, while the human resources department would handle information regarding passengers and their families.

In cases of minor or no injury to a crewmember, the flight department manager would communicate directly with the crewmember's family. However, notification of a crew fatality would be handled by someone who the family does not have to deal with again, but who still is in a position of responsibility. This enables the flight department manager to be a long-term resource for a crewmember's family without carrying the stigma of having delivered the bad news.

In general, long-term assistance to the family or fellow employees of the deceased would be handled directly by human resources, although it could be augmented by outside professionals, such as grief counselors.

Of course, developing an FAP as part of a crisis-response plan is just one step in preparing for a potential disaster. Conducting drills in which all who would be involved in the response to an accident – from the flight department to public affairs, human resources, and even the insurance company – can help refine the plan and help ensure that timely and accurate communications occur during what would undoubtedly be a very stressful time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Recordings of the two-part NBAA webinar titled "Family Assistance Response After an Incident/Accident" are available for purchase.