Alumna Hersman Leads Transportation Safety Board

Posted: December 21, 2009 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: January 21, 2010 at 12:08 pm

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Debbie Hersman, NTSB chair. NTSB photo

Debbie Hersman, NTSB chair. NTSB photo

From the window of her L’Enfant Plaza office in Washington, D.C., Mason alumna Debbie Hersman, MS Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’99, can see it all: planes taking off and landing at Reagan National Airport, vehicles on the interstate, boats moving along the Potomac River.

It’s American transportation in all its glory, and it all comes under Hersman’s purview as the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Appointed to the position by President Barack Obama, Hersman was sworn in on July 28, 2009, as the board’s 12th chairman. A board member since 2004, Hersman has represented the NTSB at the scene of 17 transportation accidents during her tenure.

The past year was a busy one for Hersman and the NTSB, and she could regularly be seen on the nightly news holding press conferences on tragedies such as the Metro train crash in D.C. and the mid-air collision over the Hudson River.

The NTSB is a 400-person independent agency whose mission is to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable causes, and issue recommendations to prevent further accidents.

“Transportation is a part of all of our lives,” she says. “Sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad, like getting stuck in traffic.”

The NTSB “is busiest and in demand when tragedies happen, but I don’t know that everyone fully appreciates how much safer our transportation system is today.”

Since the NTSB was created 40 years ago, the agency has issued more than 13,000 recommendations, 80 percent of which have been adopted by the transportation community.

“It is through these recommendations that we are able to make transportation safer,” she says.

Citing improvements such as collision avoidance systems and better air bags in personal vehicles, Hersman admits to being what she calls “a safety girl.”

Hersman is regularly called upon to be a spokesperson for the board, especially during a crisis. NTSB photo

Hersman is regularly called upon to be a spokesperson for the board, especially during a crisis. NTSB photo

“I am definitely more aware of vulnerabilities. This job has certainly highlighted those for me,” she says. “There are a lot of choices that people make that can have a lifetime of effect on them. As a society we have changed our attitudes about things like seat belt use and drunk driving, but we can save more lives if we do even better.”

Hersman has spent her career in public service. She graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies. Following graduation, she went to work on Capitol Hill for Rep. Bob Wise of West Virginia, serving as both his staff director and senior legislative aide. And, like many Mason graduate students, Hersman worked full time while earning her master’s degree.

While many of her Hill colleagues were pursuing law degrees, Hersman wanted to do something different.

“I didn’t want it to be an adversarial degree,” she says. “I wanted something where I could solve problems.”

She found what she was looking for at Mason’s Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and she says she uses what she learned at Mason every day.

“We all have challenges in our lives. Whether it is interpersonal or on the job, you have to listen to people,” she says.

“That’s probably the biggest lesson I took away. And it is most important when you are trying to figure out how to incorporate everyone’s needs into a solution, something that comes into play in my current role at the NTSB.”

She continues: “Even though I spent years working on this degree, my natural tendency is still to avoid conflict. I won’t say I embrace conflict now, but I’m more understanding of how the dynamic in a conflict situation works. A lot of life is about listening, and I think I have always tried to look at all sides. I’m not a judge, but a broker of information.”

Hersman says that people often chuckle when they learn that she has a degree in conflict analysis and resolution, but she also believes that the degree and its value are becoming more widely recognized.

“I have had younger people come up to me and say, ‘I have a degree in conflict resolution.’ They are so excited when they realize what they can do with this degree and how many doors it can open.”

In her capacity as chair, Hersman is often visible on-scene at accident sites. Board members accompany the agency’s “Go Team” to each accident for the sole purpose of serving as spokesperson for the on-scene portion of the investigation. Consequently, it’s no surprise that her three children (the youngest is 4), have dubbed her cell phone “the bat phone.”

But it is clear that she loves her work.

“Public service is incredibly rewarding. The mission of the organization is something that everyone here really believes in,” she says. “I feel very humbled to have the opportunity to be in this position and to work with such a talented and committed group of individuals. The past five years at the board have been a privilege.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu