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NTSB Chair Nominee Gets High-Profile Tryout

By Ed O'Keefe

National Transportation Safety Board Member Debbie Hersman.

National Transportation Safety Board member Debbie Hersman had some high-profile exposure this week ahead of an anticipated Senate confirmation hearing on her nomination to head the agency.

As the NTSB board member on call, Hersman was brought in to lead agency efforts related to Monday's deadly Metro rail crash in Washington, D.C., and has drawn high marks for her performance.

President Obama tapped Hersman earlier this month to serve as the next chairwoman of NTSB. President George W. Bush first nominated the transportation safety expert and Capitol Hill veteran to the board in June 2004.

“She has a tremendous background on both the Hill and at the NTSB," said former agency chairman Jim Hall. "She’s known as somebody that does her homework, is very thoughtful and very well-spoken. I think . . . she is an excellent face for the NTSB at these investigations.”

NTSB board members represent the agency on the scene of major transportation accidents by leading federal investigators and serving as agency spokesperson and liaison with state and local officials.

Hersman assumed that role at this week's Metro rail crash in Washington, D.C.. It was her 16th major accident with the agency, having previously fronted efforts at the fatal crash of a regional jet in Lexington, Ky. and the collision of a container ship into the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

A veteran transportation safety expert, Hersman is certified to drive motorcycles and commercial vehicles, including school buses and large trucks. She's also a certified child passenger safety technician, trained to teach parents and other caregivers how to properly use child restraint systems and seat belts.

Hersman spent several years on Capitol Hill, as an aide to Rep. Bob Wise (D-W. Va.) and as a senior staffer on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

This week's Metro crash occurred at a critical day and time for the NTSB, because on-call rotations for crash scene investigators start and end at 5 p.m. on Mondays. The same general schedule applies to board members, according to NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkowitcz. Board member Robert L. Sumwalt was on call last weekend, but got called away to a train accident in Illinois, meaning responsibilities for Monday's Metro accident fell to Hersman, the next board member on the schedule, Lopatkowitcz said.

It's "strictly the luck of the draw on which incidents you go to," he said.

Hersman, in her role as the on-scene board member, will chair any public hearings on the Metro crash if the board calls for one. On average, NTSB holds three public hearings per year depending on the severity of an incident and the lessons learned, Lopatkowitcz said.

"We have a unique system that was started in the United States," Hall said of NTSB's accident investigations.

"It’s very open, it’s very transparent and it’s a major responsibility to be the individual who’s responsible for communicating with the public and the family members on the investigation. I think [Hersman] does an excellent job in that role."

By Ed O'Keefe  | June 26, 2009; 6:03 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Gold Star  
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Debbie Hersman is a fabulous person who will make an excellent NTSB Chairwoman.

Posted by: mfm1 | June 26, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

She seems like she doesn't take a lot of BS.....

Posted by: ENJOYA | June 26, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

I was always embarrassed each time I heard NTSB chairman Rosenker speak. Hersman, on the other hand, is usually pretty impressive and confidence-inspiring during her public appearances. Looking forward to having her replace that old Bush crony Rosenker.

Posted by: DupontJay | June 26, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

I have seen Ms. Hersman at work at accident sites on occasion over her years at NTSB. She is definitely skilled at handling the press, and seems to be very well balanced in revealing what is known, what suspected, and yet to be discovered in the investigation. It is wonderful to see a fairly young Government appointee perform so well; I wish her future luck as Chairman of NTSB.

Posted by: optides1 | June 26, 2009 6:58 PM | Report abuse

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