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Riding Out the Storm

This past October, I had the opportunity to sit in on an intriguing presentation called, “Post Accident Life Cycle” in Vancouver.


January 12, 2015
By Paul Dixon

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This past October, I had the opportunity to sit in on an intriguing presentation called, “Post Accident Life Cycle” in Vancouver. Organized by the British Columbia Aviation Council (BCAC), this one-day workshop illustrated the response side of what happens following an aviation accident, from the moment of realization through the first 24-hours and into the days and weeks that follow.

The day was broken up into four presentation blocks that grouped agencies based on where they would show up on the time line. Where the incident happens and when it happens is a huge factor in how the response effort looks, but the responsibilities never change. NAV CANADA is front and centre in most cases, and if the crash happens at, or near an airport or heliport, they must deal with other traffic using the facility.

If the accident occurs in an urban area, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) is notified. They are responsible for aviation accidents under their search and rescue (SAR) mandate. One phone call may be the first and last involvement they have, but they need to know.

At the actual scene, the police force of jurisdiction initially treats the area as a potential crime scene. Once any lifesaving or firefighting efforts are completed, the police secure the scene. While the police have initial responsibility, RCMP Sgt. Cam Kowalski pointed out that the scene will fall under a multi-jurisdictional mandate once the police make a determination of any criminal involvement. In cases where deaths have occurred, the coroners’ office takes over responsibility for the investigation.

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It’s worth nothing that in B.C., police officers are also delegated authority under the Coroner’s Act, allowing them to act on behalf of the coroner until the coroner arrives. Vince Stancato of the B.C. Coroner’s Office noted that his job is nothing like the ones portrayed on TV. A coroner in B.C. acts on behalf of the deceased and attempts to answer the question, “why am I dead?” Coroners determine facts and do not find fault.

The Transportation Safety Board’s (TSB) Glen Friesen said the TSB is a primary responder given the time it may take investigators to reach the scene. The TSB takes over control of the site when the coroner has concluded its work. The TSB’s senior investigator is in charge and will determine who will be allowed onto the site. Friesen notes it’s not uncommon for many people to show up at the site, but those allowed to enter are those who can assistance with the investigation. Often operators stay as far away from the TSB as possible, but Friesen strongly suggests they “take the opportunity” to participate in the investigation and learn as much as possible.

Communications in the aftermath of a crash are critical, both internal and external. Alyn Edwards of Peak Communications has a long background in the media. Edwards aptly points out that having the correct information is essential as mistakes have consequences. In the 24/7 world of non-stop information, the public and the media are hungry for information on anything that happens. Edwards suggests operators need to have a media plan in place to eliminate mistakes.

“If you shoot from the lip, you’ll be hung by the tongue,” he said. “You have to get your message out and you have to get it out there before someone else gets it wrong. Once the horse is out of the barn it’s difficult to corral. As important as it is to get your message out to the big, bad world, it’s just as important that your own people know what is going on. Be consistent in what you say and tell a story that’s based on fact, not wishes or suppositions. Have a crisis communications plan that can be applied to a wide range of circumstances and train members of your staff and then exercise the plan.”

The event brought up many salient points: key information operators need to review on a regular basis. Are you prepared to provide support to your staff? If a fatal crash includes employees of your company, do you have a support plan in place for family members and co-workers? Are you able to provide a safe haven and counseling for those who need it?

Aviation operators must work within the premise that an accident may occur – an event that could threaten their very future. The time to implement – and practice – emergency management measures is now. The emergency management office I worked at used to have a sign on the wall that said, “it wasn’t raining when Noah started building the Ark.” It most certainly was not – and there is always time to prepare for the storm.


Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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