The handling of next of kin during an incident is one of the most important responsibilities of any crisis management team. The aviation industry is particularly challenged by this because they often operate in many different countries, and because planes are increasingly becoming a common method of public transport.
The industry must balance competing pressures such as how to operate the airline efficiently and economically whilst meeting rigorous security and safety standards. Additionally, if something does go wrong, it can be disastrous, and the industry needs to be prepared to deal with that. These examples show what airlines must consider when handling casualties and next of kin during a crisis:
Establish a Dedicated Call Centre
If an airline is involved in an accident that might involve casualties, it should quickly open call centres dedicated to the next of kin. This call centre should only deal with enquiries from relatives or loved ones, not the media or other organisations.
The aviation industry faces various challenges associated with this. On a plane flying from Oslo to London, for instance, half of the passengers could be from London and the other half from Oslo. The airline would have to set up a call centre that can respond in multiple languages and would need representation on the ground in both countries. It is also vital that available information is shared seamlessly across country borders.
When an incident takes place, the next of kin of those affected will be desperate for information regarding their loved ones and may be in a state of shock.
In the early stages of a crisis, things are often chaotic, and information is either lacking or imprecise. The next of kin will, in most cases, contact someone they assume has inside information. A well-functioning, dedicated phone service will reduce anxiety and provide a sense of stability. This is certainly the case when the person at the other end of the phone is trained to deal with them compassionately with facts and specific information.
Activate a Dark Site
The number of the next of kin phone service should be published on the front page of the company’s web site, or better still, published on a separate dark site. A dark site is a website all traffic is routed to when an incident occurs. It is a dedicated page for that specific emergency.
Filtrate the Traffic
Although the call centre is dedicated to next of kin, others might try to use it to acquire information. Asking questions to verify callers' identity is essential to filter the incoming traffic. Ask who they are enquiring about and have them confirm this person's national insurance number or date of birth. Unfortunately, there have been incidents where journalists have lied about being next of kin to get information from an organisation. Security questions can help you avoid unnecessary or false enquiries from clogging up your phone lines.
The aviation industry typically has a lot of information about the people involved in incidents, but if you are working in an industry where information is limited (like the railway for example), you will be restricted to logging incoming enquiries and only returning to the next of kin when you have more information.
Record and Share Information
The airlines also need a way of recording information about the people affected by the incident, and they must share and communicate that information with other internal parties so that they are all working with the same data. In many countries, it's the police’s job to inform the relatives if the incident involves fatalities.
Put Together a Competent Team
The relative response team can either consist of employees with various roles within the airline, or can be employed by an external company. Either way, the training of your team is crucial, and plans must be tried and tested before an incident happens.
Keep in mind that it is very challenging and psychologically demanding to handle worried people who often exhibit irrational behaviour and have an impaired ability to concentrate. The team will meet people with all kinds of emotions. Look for employees with personality traits such as:
- Ability to handle stress
- Calm demeanour
- Ability to listen
- Ability to communicate with clear language
- Good comprehension of language - you meet all types of dialects and people with different mother tongues.
They also need to be available when required. This often involves setting up a rota system, and as soon as people are on shift, the management needs to think about when and how the operators can be substituted. Exhausted employees must be allowed time to rest. The employee cannot be affected by the emotional state of the people calling. Even if they are frustrated and raise their voice, the person on the receiving end must be empathetic and calm.
Securing a brand
Although airlines are highly unlikely to improve the reputation of their brand during an incident, they can work to reduce the damage. When incidents occur, you are measured on your response and the ability of senior management to limit the spread and scale of the issue.
Recent worldwide events have shown how a well-rehearsed emergency response plan can be the difference between losing and retaining the trust of the public.