ALPA@Work - CIRP: A Helping Hand for Fellow Pilots

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer
Capt. Louise Cullinan (Mesa), ALPA’s Critical Incident Response (CIRP) chairman, discusses with attendees the tools they will need to help fellow crewmembers involved in a critical incident.

“A pilot’s life can be stressful enough. Add in an unexpected event, like witnessing an accident or even just the perception of harm, and you’ll see just how human pilots can be,” said Capt. Louise Cullinan (Mesa), ALPA’s Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) chairman, during CIRP training held at ALPA’s Herndon, Va., Conference Center January 30–February 1. “As their peers, CIRP volunteers are there to be with a pilot at that moment of need to help process what’s happened—and that can make all the difference,” Cullinan told the 36 ALPA Air Safety Organization pilot representatives from 13 airlines in attendance, along with several spouses and airline staff.

ALPA’s CIRP training arms volunteers with the information they need to assist crewmembers who’ve been involved in a “critical incident,” which is defined as any work-related event that has a stressful impact sufficient enough to overwhelm the coping skills of either an individual or a group.

Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s first vice president and national safety coordinator, also spoke to the attendees saying, “Others judge an organization by how it treats its members who are down. Our pilots’ willingness to step into a situation and be the helping hand to fellow pilots speaks volumes about our Association and us.”

Crisis intervention and peer support

Course attendees learned the CIRP processes and strategies to help their fellow pilots cope with the aftereffects of an incident. Individual peer-to-peer approaches focus on body language, word choice, and specific coping tactics that include ways to help rid the body of stress.

After a critical incident, some crewmembers may experience stress reactions caused by the individual’s perception of the event. While each person reacts differently, these responses typically fall into four general categories: physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral. But the most noticeable and common side effect of such stress is the inability to sleep restfully.

The three-day training included discussions on reactions to stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and grief. Participants also took part in exercises to practice and develop listening skills, handle special cases, and work effectively as part of a CIRP team, including first-hand experience working in groups to understand the broad range of crisis-intervention services CIRP provides.

Capt. Jim Treacy, the JetBlue pilots’ Master Executive Council CIRP chairman who attended the training, acknowledged, “An important thing I learned and use daily is that in any relationship one may be in, it’s important to listen. It’s not always easy, and I certainly am not the best at it, but I think the CIRP course has given me some insight and tools to be a better listener.”

Tools of the trade

The main work of CIRP peer volunteers entails “one-on-one” talks. “For smaller events, they’re often done over the phone,” Cullinan said. “A one-on-one is a simple opportunity for stressed pilots to talk about what happened with others and discuss the effect of the event on them. We coach them through stress management and give a little bit of an education on what they should and shouldn’t do.”

A defusing expands the discussion to a more structured, three-step group process. While these usually take place immediately, or within eight hours, after a traumatic event—making them far more effective—they can be done any time after an incident or accident. The conversation can do a lot to relieve any remaining stress symptoms an affected pilot is experiencing, and often involve follow-up calls in the days after. But in addition to listening, the CIRP peer is assessing whether a debriefing is needed.

A debriefing involves a group discussion with the entire affected flight crew and follows a seven-step process in which the participants talk about the traumatic event.

Debriefings—when needed—usually occur within three days to two weeks after a critical event. They have several goals, including mitigating stress effects, preventing the onset of PTSD, and serving as “psychological triage” to help determine who will need the services of a mental health professional.

Debriefings include several phases: discussion of the incident’s facts as the crew recalls them, what the affected crewmembers were thinking, how they reacted, identifying and exploring any symptoms those affected are experiencing, teaching them about stress management, and transitioning back into the cockpit.

Cullinan reminded participants that as a CIRP volunteer, “your role is not to be a medical professional…. You’re the first to respond to your peers’ emotional state and provide any emotional first aid they need after the event.”

Attendees also learned about the grief process, including how to use appropriate phrases when speaking with the bereaved. Cullinan noted that volunteers should admit that they don’t know how a person feels about the loss of a loved one and make a point of using the deceased person’s name while talking about them in the present tense.

CIRP at ALPA

Capt. Madeline “Mimi” Tompkins (Hawaiian, Ret.) led the development of CIRP at ALPA in 1988 in the wake of a traumatic experience aboard Aloha Airlines Flight 243. Although she helped to successfully land a crippled B-737 after an explosive decompression from metal fatigue (which claimed the life of one flight attendant and injured 65 passengers and crew), she faced PTSD in the months that followed.

Realizing that there was no system in place to help her or other pilots who had been in similar situations, Tompkins worked with Dr. Donald Hudson, then ALPA’s aeromedical advisor, and the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation to borrow techniques from firefighters and law enforcement, adapting the existing knowledge to help airline pilots.

Today, nearly all of ALPA’s pilot groups have adopted the program, and it’s helped many pilots return to the cockpit after an accident or incident.

CIRP, along with Aeromedical, Human Intervention and Motivation Study (HIMS), Canadian Pilot Assistance, and Professional Standards, comes under the umbrella of ALPA’s Pilot Assistance Group. The next CIRP training course is slated for early 2018. If you’re interested in becoming a CIRP volunteer, contact your MEC CIRP chairman.


Providing Support

The types of critical incidents that ALPA’s Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) volunteers respond to include

  • incidents resulting in injury, death, or damage,
  • aircraft accidents,
  • witnesses to an accident,
  • passenger evacuations,
  • death of a crewmember,
  • terrorist events, and
  • natural disasters.

For more information on CIRP, visit ALPA’s Pilot Assistance Group website at pilotassistance.alpa.org.

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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