The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and some of its 413 employees must keep “go bags” packed at all times so they can rush to the scene of a transportation accident with 90 minutes’ notice.
That wasn’t a burden during the longest stretch in U.S. history without a passenger death in an airline accident. The board made work for itself by advocating for tougher drunken-driving laws and a ban on wireless phones in cars.
Now, one of the smallest U.S. agencies is being stretched thin in what may be its busiest period since the mid-1990s. In addition to the Asiana Airlines Inc. accident in San Francisco on July 6, the first in the U.S. of a commercial airliner involving fatalities since 2009, the board is investigating a half-dozen private-plane crashes, train derailments affecting New York commuters, a Boeing Co. 787 fire in London and even a Maryland car wreck.
It’s asking a lot of an agency whose annual budget equals what the U.S. spends every 11 1/2 hours in Afghanistan.
“Some of our investigators are going straight from one accident to another accident,” Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said in an interview yesterday. “They really don’t have recovery time. When you’re trying to collect that perishable evidence, you really don’t have a lot of time.”
Hersman said the board may have to tap its reserve fund before its fiscal year ends Sept. 30, after absorbing $5 million in cuts from the automatic budget reductions known as sequestration just before the streak of accidents began. The agency’s annual budget before the cuts was $102 million.
So far this year, the board has worked on at least 16 accident investigations it calls major, about as many as it was involved in all of last year.
Yesterday, it said it would look into a July 19 crash in which a car was flung over Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge after being hit by a tractor-trailer. The 22-year-old driver survived by swimming to safety through a broken window.
“This has been one of the more busy periods for the board,” said Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director who’s now a senior vice president with O’Neill and Associates in Washington.
He said the last time the board was this busy was in 1996 and 1997, when it was dealing with the aftermath of TWA and ValuJet crashes that killed everyone on board.
While last year’s major incidents included a parasailing accident and a near-miss at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, this year’s have made headlines.
It’s looked into fires in Boeing 787 Dreamliners, a train crash in Connecticut involving about 700 passengers and two highway-bridge collapses, a rare occurrence in the U.S.
The investigations have become more complex as technology proliferates across transportation modes and travel has become safer, Goelz said.
“The low-hanging fruit of accident investigations are almost all gone,” he said. “The accidents they’re getting now are more complex and take longer, take greater skills.”
The safety board is required to investigate all general aviation accidents, including non-fatal ones, and plane crashes in other countries that involve U.S.-made aircraft or components. With planemaker Boeing and enginemaker United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney based in the U.S., that keeps the work flowing.
When accident investigations come quickly and purse strings are tight, board members cut down on advocacy work and travel less to speak or meet with companies, said Mark Rosenker, a former NTSB chairman.
“I wasn’t going to lose my people,” Rosenker said. “They’re the most important assets.”
To adjust to the sequestration-related budget cuts, the board is closing five regional offices around the U.S. Investigators based in those offices now work from home when not in the field. The board kept three offices in the West and its training center in Ashburn, Virginia, near Washington.
One of the offices being kept open is in Alaska, where the board is investigating an air-taxi crash that killed 10 people - - the pilot and two entire families from South Carolina. The wreck occurred the day after the Asiana accident.
“With fiscal constraints and the cuts that we’ve seen in the sequester, we can’t do it all and we can’t do it all quickly,” Hersman said.
When an accident happens, the NTSB communications center contacts the chairman, who makes the call on whether to send a so-called go team to the scene.
“When you get the phone call at 2 or 3 in the morning, you know it’s never good news,” Rosenker said.
Some cases are clear cut. Others aren’t. Last week, the board sent two investigators to the Bronx after a CSX Corp. train hauling trash derailed. The accident snarled commutes yet caused no injuries.
Investigators must work quickly while not missing evidence at crash sites. In San Francisco, airport operators were eager to clear away the crashed Asiana plane and reopen the runway, Hersman said.
As the board member in charge at that scene, Hersman said she got about 20 hours of sleep over six days.
“Our investigators work in very challenging conditions,” she said. “They are working in the middle of a hot summer at a railroad accident scene where the temperatures are very high. They’re working out in the desert in Afghanistan or on a cruise ship where there’s been a fire and there’s no air conditioning.”
“But to an investigator, they believe the work they do makes a difference,” she said. “They will face difficult circumstances, harsh conditions and long hours because they believe the work they do is important and saves lives.”