April, 1998 Meeting with American Red Cross

What Family Members Need . . .

Submitted by Tony Zanger and Tom O’Mara

Monday, April 27, 1998, NADA/F Board Members attended an Aviation Disaster Family Member Meeting at the national headquarters of the American Red Cross (ARC) in Falls Church, VA. We discussed the ways the ARC can improve the treatment of the survivor and victim families at aviation crash sites, and during the days, weeks, months, and years that follow. The information will be utilized in the continuing planning for the provision of mental health support in future disasters. The ARC is the designated organization responsible for providing these services per The Family Assistance Act of 1996. The ARC is to provide the following:

  1. Mental and health counseling services in coordination with the air carrier.
  2. A private environment for families to grieve.
  3. Meet families traveling to the accident site and provide communication to family members.
  4. Information on rules and regulations involved.
  5. To coordinate memorial services.

About 25 people attended the meeting including: family members, ARC health care professionals, representatives from the NTSB, and others. Jane Morgan, RN, with ARC was an excellent Chair for the discussion. A family from the Korean Air crash at Guam also attended. Their experience was a fresh reminder that the airlines need to improve the system for notifying and helping families.

(NADA/F board members had a planning meeting before attending the ARC meeting to discuss our priorities and our board members were unanimous with all of our recommendations).

The discussion began with the chronology of what happens first after an aviation disaster. NADA/F members stressed that the notification process must be improved. Tom O’Mara and Linda Ryan presented our position that the ARC should utilize NADA/F members to help at crash sites and afterward. NADA/F asked for training and full participation for those of us who, in the opinion of mental health professionals, could stand the emotional pounding that would accompany helping others. Armond Mascelli, Senior Director of Disaster Services at ARC said that it is under consideration. NADA/F stressed that families must receive timely, accurate, complete and honest information, which none of us experienced in the past.

Jane Morgan asked for recommendations on the type of role the ARC should play. NADA/F suggested that the ARC could provide the following:

  • Personal notification.
  • If needed accompany family members of domestic/international travel or help the family with the journey to the crash site.
  • Be the “fire wall” to protect the families from the airline when the families are so vulnerable. 
  • Disclose what assistance is available to families.
  • Provide immediate information and communication to all family members, including extended and non-traditional families.
  • Caution workers and volunteers to maintain privacy.
  • Require workers and volunteers to sign a Confidentiality Agreement while working with families.
  • Ensure that volunteer health care workers are not related to the airline litigation attorneys.
  • Individuals who are interacting with families must be screened. An identification checklist should be developed to screen these individuals.
  • Inform families of the records needed for identification, etc.
  • Provide support for families who are at the airports when a crash occurs.
  • The local ARC should be contacted in the city of the air crash to provide backbone support.
  • ARC chapters in other cities could assist families in different parts of the US.
  • Work with government agencies when international notification is necessary.
  • ARC should take a “This is what I can do for you” approach to families.
  • An unintrusive clerical presence should be available.
  • An unintrusive mental health presence should be available.
  • The title “mental health counselor” should be downplayed. Families are not mentally ill. They are experiencing intense shock and grief.

The on and off-site briefing procedure at the Family Support Center was also discussed. NADA/F representatives stressed that information to families should be a daily activity and should include those who do not travel to the city where the accident occurred. The following was recommended:

  • The ARC could be included in family briefings.
  • Media briefings should be conducted after and separate from the family briefings.
  • Limit health care professionals to 1 per every 3-4 families.
  • Fewer less intrusive helpers.
  • Continuity of support during the identification process (family should work with only one person). 
  • Unintrusive clerical/religious support should be available.
  • The need to have information of support available from family members and survivors of current and past air disasters who are available in the area of the disaster (no substitutions).
  • Provide an outreach for family members to meet people who have experienced a similar situation. Let these people meet each other!
  • Local churches near the accident site could provide meals for the families, and an opportunity for families to meet one another in a “safe” environment.
  • Immediate availability of child care services.

Regarding visits to crash sites, the following was recommended:

  • Visits to the crash site should be carefully planned. Preparation of families for those visits should include briefings and debriefings with complete honesty.
  • Family members should be provided separate transportation to the crash site.
  • A private environment should be created for all who visit the site. 

NADA/F Board Members expressed strong opposition to the conducting of secret burials of unidentified remains. Recommendations were:

  • Family members should be notified of any burial and should be invited and allowed to attend a burial service. No secret burials should ever be allowed to occur again! 
  • Family members should be involved in the planning of public memorial services. 
  • Family members should be consulted about how they want a name to read on a bronze or similar plaque. 
  • Family members should share in the decision-making of any permanent memorial monument. 
  • A monument should list the name of the air disaster, including the airline name and date of occurrence, and names of the deceased. 
  • NADA/F agreed that it is important to hold an observance for the first anniversary.

Regarding personal affects NADA/F recommended that every effort should be made to return all personal affects to family members. It was further recommended that those items be retained as long as possible and that family members know where they are being stored for possible future identification and release.

NADA/F unanimously stressed that there should be prompt, honest disclosure of information. Also, there should be no financial liens from the airlines against any family members for funeral expenses!

NADA/F recommended that the ARC support its call for a fine for any attorney who attempts to contact family members before the 45 day waiting period. Also, ensure that clergy and counselors are not recommending attorneys to the family members.

Everyone was invited to tour the ARC Disaster Operations Center. An impressive detailed explanation of the response that is enacted when a disaster occurs, airline or otherwise, was shared including communications, volunteer and other support services.

In closing remarks, NADA/F Board Members shared their concerns, hopes and desires for a positive working relationship with the ARC. The board strongly urged the ARC to utilize the help that families of victims of past air disasters have to offer others. Linda Ryan said, “We’re here to help, use us.” All agreed and expressed a willingness to be trained and professionally evaluated before being asked to volunteer. NADA/F thanked Jane Morgan, and everyone from the ARC, for the opportunity to meet and work together on disaster planning for aviation victims. The ARC expressed hope that this meeting will help everyone to be better prepared to assist families in the future.