How the NTSB Investigates an Accident

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the independent Federal Agency tasked with investigating every civil aviation accident in the U.S. and significant accidents in other modes of transportation. This can include railroad, highway, marine and pipeline. When an accident occurs, their investigators are immediately sent to the scene. Called the “Go Team,” these experts are on call and must be ready to leave quickly during their duty shift. The team can number anywhere from three to more than a dozen specialists, depending on the nature of the accident itself. Their purpose: to begin the investigation into the causes of the accident right at the scene. Team members are sent from the NTSB’s headquarters in D.C., and they may travel to the accident scene either on a commercial airliner or on a government plane. They work under an Investigator-in-Charge. This is a senior investigator, who has many years of experience. Each investigator on the “Go Team” is an expert in a particular area and is responsible for one, clearly defined area of the investigation. Each of these experts head a “working group,” which is basically a subcommittee consisting of the representatives of many other involved parties. For example, for an aviation accident, a working group might consist of the NTSB specialist and representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, the airline, the pilots’ and flight attendants’ unions, airframe and engine manufacturers, and the like. Aviation accidents are particularly complex, requiring bigger teams with more specialists. For surface accidents, such as the recent Dec. 1 Metro North derailment, a locomotive engineers, signal system specialists and track engineers would head the working groups, along with representatives from Metro North and any unions involved. During the on-scene investigation, only confirmed, factual information is ever released to the public. The NTSB does not ever speculate about cause. After the on-scene investigation, the second stage of the investigation continues at NTSB headquarters in Washington. One of the main roles of the Board is to issue recommendations for improving transportation safety. It might take the board a year or more from the date of the accident for the board to conclude their investigation, analyze all the data, and present a report including their recommendations. For more information on how the NTSB responds to accidents, and how their investigators move through an investigation, coming to a final conclusion, click here.

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