From the window of her L’Enfant Plaza office in Washington, D.C., Mason alumna Debbie Hersman, MS Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’00, 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 chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Appointed to the position by President Obama, Hersman was sworn in as the board’s 12th chair in 2009. She has since 2004 been a member of the NTSB, a 400-person independent agency whose mission is to investigate accidents, determine their probable causes, and issue recommendations to prevent further accidents.
Hersman has represented the NTSB at the scene of 17 transportation accidents during her tenure. Her first year as chair was a busy one for both her and the NTSB. She could regularly be seen on the nightly news holding press conferences on such tragedies as the D.C. Metro subway crash and the mid-air collision over the Hudson River, which each killed nine people.
“[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,” says Hersman. “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.”
Citing improvements such as collision avoidance systems and better air bags, Hersman admits to being what she calls a “safety girl.”
“I am definitely more aware of vulnerabilities,” Hersman says. “There are a lot of choices people make that can have a lifetime of effect on them. As a society, we have changed our attitudes about such things as 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 Congressman Bob Wise of West Virginia, serving as both his staff director and senior legislative aide.
As have 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,” Hersman says. “I wanted something where I could solve problems.” She found what she was looking for at Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR), 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.
“A lot of life is about listening, and I think I have always tried to look at all sides,” she continues. “I’m not a judge but a broker of information.”
In her capacity as chair, Hersman is often visible on-scene at recent accident sites. Board members accompany the agency’s Go Team that is assigned to each accident for the sole purpose of serving as spokesperson for the on-scene portion of the investigation. Keeping in contact is a key part of her job. Consequently, Hersman is vigilant about her communication devices. The mother of three boys, Hersman says her children call 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 work with such a talented and committed group of individuals. The past six years on the board have been a privilege.”