Safety Task Force
National Transportation Safety Board
The principal government agency the STF works with is the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). On a collateral basis, the STF works with all other agencies which become parties to an accident investigation.
Learning about the STF means learning about the NTSB. The NTSB is an independent federal agency which came into being in 1966 when the Department of Transportation (DOT) was created. The NTSB's roots go back further to the Civil Aeronautics Board, when the NTSB was called the Bureau of Safety.
The first NTSB accident investigation took place in 1934, with the first rail accident investigation taking place in Everett, Mass. in 1966.
In 1974, Congress passed the Independent Safety Board Act which formalized the independence of the NTSB from the DOT. Under the present arrangement, the NTSB is part of the Executive Branch of government, but reports directly to the President and the Congress.
The agency is headed by five political appointees, selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate to serve five year terms. Three of the members must be technically qualified and no more than three can be a member of one particular political party.
The manpower strength of the agency has declined somewhat in recent years, but is now on the rebound headed back toward the area of 400 employees.
The Agency recently announced a large scale reorganization plan. However, essentially the organizational breakdown finds one portion dedicated to accident investigations for air and another for surface accidents, along with a diverse technical support group which aids the accident investigation portion. These persons are from several different disciplines such as, surface engineering, safety engineering, survival factors, civil engineering, human performance, etc.
The NTSB headquarters are in Washington, DC. The administrative, supervisory, and support personnel are located there and perform the daily functions of the agency. When the NTSB sends a "Go Team" out on a "Major Accident Investigation", it is from this headquarters that the personnel are sent to supply the team.
The Board also maintains a sophisticated scientific laboratory in the Washington, DC headquarters where evidence from accidents is analyzed to aid in the accident cause finding.
In addition to the large offices in Washington, DC, the NTSB maintains three field offices in the U.S., in Los Angeles, Chicago, and in Parsippany, New Jersey. It is from these offices that the investigators are dispatched on a "Regional Accident Investigation".
The STF and the NTSB
When participating in an NTSB accident investigation, STF team members must by law, conduct themselves within the bounds of certain Federal regulations issued by the NTSB for all participants.
These regulations are found under Title 49, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Chapter Vlll-- National Transportation Safety Board, Part 831 (Accident/lncident Investigation Procedures).
The nature of an NTSB investigation is such that by regulation, there are no adverse parties, or opposing sides, and the investigation is strictly for the purpose of fact finding.
When the NTSB conducts an investigation, either major or regional, it designates one member of their team sent to the accident scene to be the Investigator-in-Charge or IIC.
The NTSB - IIC has certain legal powers granted to him by administrative law. Essentially, the IIC organizes, conducts and controls the field phase of the investigation, and during follow up phases. Also, the IIC supervises all of the Board personnel on site.
The NTSB - IIC decides upon formal granting of "Party Status" to organizations like the BLET/STF. Granting of Party Status to a group, or organization means that they become an official part of the investigation, entitled to make inputs, participate in field investigations, submit safety recommendations, etc. This formally takes place during an on-site "Organizational Meeting" which usually occurs within hours after arrival on scene by the NTSB group.
Organizations holding Party Status would not only be present during interviews of its' personnel (as could a group without Party Status), but additionally, groups with Party Status would remain on site after the interview, to be continuously present and contributing to the cause finding efforts during the entire term of the investigation.
Typically, a major investigation takes three to seven days to complete the active field phase. A regional investigation takes from one to three days to complete the active field phase.
The NTSB issues what it feels the evidence shows to be the probable causes in all accidents, with particular attention being given to the major accident investigations. The time frame from accident to release of the probable cause information is about one year.
Major and Regional NTSB Investigations
With respect to rail accidents, there are two broad levels of NTSB accident investigation effort: Major Accident Investigations and Regional Accident Investigations.
By law, all U.S. railroads are required to report by telephone to the National Response Center within two to four hours after certain accidents. This is the first stage in the reporting mechanism by which the NTSB learns of an accident in the U.S.
After receipt of this information, the NTSB will decided to either launch a Major Accident Investigation, or a Regional Accident Investigation. This decision is made promptly, so that within just hours after an accident, the NTSB is in a position to act.
There are not too many "majors" in the U.S. during a year, usually there will be four to five. The Board typically launches a "Go Team", or major accident team where the NTSB feels (based upon the first initial reports) that there are significant safety implications involved in a particular accident, and are of a sort that have broad application nationwide. Alternatively, regional accident investigations number about 150 per year.
The STF responds based upon the course of action taken by the NTSB. Usually (but not always) the STF will respond to all major investigations. STF response to regional investigations is limited and selective at the present.
The principal objective for the STF is to be present when significant safety matters are indicated, which is usually the case in a major response, as opposed to the regional type investigation.
The decision to activate the STF is made by the BLET National Chairman, or his alternate when he is not immediately available. Should he not be available, the STF Liaison Officer at the BLET National Division Office in Cleveland can decide.
NTSB Accident Investigation Committees
During the first day of the investigation, the IIC will hold an "Organizational Meeting". In major full-scale investigations, Party Status will be granted by the IIC during the Organizational Meeting, and the appointment of the different NTSB accident investigation committees will take place. At this point, the STF personnel will need to be present so that they can be assigned to the various committees to be able to participate in the investigation.
In a typical major investigation, there are several NTSB accident investigation committees established. These NTSB accident investigation committees can include the following:
This committee will look into all operational aspects concerning the accident, including rules, timetables, dispatching procedures, track warrants and clearances, and operational practices as specified by the carrier, etc.
This committee investigates locomotives, cars, etc. to learn about possible mechanical failures. They will document the settings of all switches, brake valves, etc. on the locomotive(s). They will examine locomotives and cars both inside and out.
This committee will investigate the off duty history of the crew, check their medical history, look into any other events which might be significant.
This committee investigates the response patterns and actions of local agencies in their first response to the accident, and their management of the accident to look for possible areas of improvement.
This committee is formed when there is involvement of hazardous materials (hazmat) at an accident. The committee will evaluate hazmat releases and their interaction with other chemicals, causative factors relative to the hazmat releases, etc.
Track and Structures
This committee as the name implies, examines track structures for possible accident causes.
Signals and Communication
This committee examines signal systems, and communication aspects.
This committee will examine various civil engineering matters.
Not all of these committees are organized at every major accident investigation. They are appointed by the NTSB - IIC on the scene as required.
At a Regional NTSB Investigation, there may be a limited number of committees or there may be no formal committees established. Likewise, there may be no parties of interest, and thus no Party Status is granted.