Family reunification is a crucial part of the responsibility of emergency response professionals in the aviation industry who are tasked with ensuring the well-being of the survivors of airplane and airport incidents and their respective families.
Imagine yourself waiting at an airport for your spouse, parent or child to arrive after a vacation and hearing whispered conversation that an airplane has gone off the end of the runway and that fire was seen as you hear sirens in the distance. It’s a moment that we hope never to encounter, but as individuals who work for an airline or at an airport authority, we know it is something we must be prepared to address. So what are the best practices that we should demonstrate to try to limit further emotional injury to those who were impacted by the event?
First, you must be prepared in advance to manage these types of scenarios. Ask yourself a few of these questions: Do your employees know what their role is and where to find their checklists, plans and with whom they need to communicate within their organization during an incident? In addition, have you, your senior leadership and involved employees drilled the proper protocols to gather and share information to potentially traumatized individuals who were impacted by the event?
If you answered no to any of the above questions, it is vitally important to create crisis communications and operations plans to address those questions. Of equal importance is the need to conduct exercises with likely scenarios, so everyone on your team is properly prepared for a potential crisis. During a real-life crisis event, airline passengers will look to the airline and airport operations staff to remain calm and feel protected. If the staff is unprepared, this negatively impact loved ones, causing much more disruption.
The second best practice is making certain that your staff and leadership are trained in the proper techniques for assisting survivors in the aftermath of a traumatic event. It’s crucial that your employees be prepared to assist and provide empathetic, relevant and timely updates, as available, to those who are impacted by the incident. Even if you have no new information, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. The longer information regarding someone's status is withheld from loved ones, the greater the potential emotional impact on the actual survivors, in addition to their family and friends.
Provide a quiet area to speak with those affected and be empathetic in your communications. If you make a promise regarding a time for the next update, be sure you keep that promise even if you have nothing new to share.
Many have referred to responding to an aircraft incident to “drinking from a fire hose.” Not only are you stressed about doing the right thing, but you also want to provide accurate and timely information to family and friends to reunite families as quickly and safely as possible.
One important aspect of creating order from the chaos is to have your crisis or incident management software readily available to document information about the incident. More specifically, you should be able to document the names of survivors, their status and their location in order to cross-reference similar information about family and friends attempting to find their loved ones. Create a form or status board for gathering information about loved ones who may be in your lounge, or other secure/private area, making it easier to share the details about the location and status of their loved one once you have updates from the scene or a hospital.
It is also incredibly beneficial that your CIMS tool works in a way in which information can be shared and updated from multiple locations, including the Command Center, the Family & Friends Center, the accident site and other locations in which involved parties may be located.
An effective, empathetic response and timely reunion of survivors with their loved ones is very important, and preparedness is the key to making the difference in the lives of those impacted by an aircraft or airport incident.