ALPA Chats with CIRP Chair Capt. John McFadden

By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer

Air Line Pilot recently sat down with Capt. John McFadden (United), ALPA’s Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) chair, to talk about this important member resource. The efforts of the many CIRP pilot volunteers often go unnoticed due to the confidential and very personal nature of this critical component of the Association’s Air Safety Organization Pilot Assistance structure.

Air Line Pilot: John, thanks for taking the time to speak with us about the critical incident response work you and the many other ALPA volunteers do. For those who might not be familiar with it, what is CIRP? 

McFadden: CIRP is a comprehensive program that uses trained peer pilots ALPA members can turn to when they experience the effects of an accident or significant incident. We know that being involved in a critical or traumatic incident may trigger stress reactions that can have long-lasting physical or psychological implications. The assistance our peers provide is often very successful in mitigating the impact of these responses.

Ideally, we try to pair pilots with a peer who flies a similar aircraft and has a similar background. Our volunteers apply science-based, proven protocols that can mitigate the effects of stress reactions to help affected pilots recover faster. Think of CIRP as psychological first aid.

CIRP was developed by Drs. George Everly and Jeffrey Mitchell to help first responders like police officers, firefighters, and military special forces teams. Programs are certified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF).

When an accident or incident occurs, how is CIRP initiated?

McFadden: CIRP typically responds when pilots call the ALPA Worldwide Accident/Serious Incident Hotline at 202-797-4180 (or 703-892-4180) or when the CIRP chair is notified through other means. Sometimes the national chair contacts the master executive council [MEC] CIRP chair for the pilot group, provided it has one. Some airlines don’t have a CIRP Committee, but all ALPA members have access to this resource.

Normally within 24 hours, a peer contacts the pilot to explain how we work and highlight that it’s confidential and participation is voluntary. The two then discuss what happened in a structured, nonjudgmental process.

These conversations can be very cathartic. The ability for one pilot to speak with another, peer to peer, can prevent the onset of traumatic-stress reactions like sleep disturbances, irritability, and other damaging effects. In addition, ALPA is implementing a new resource—the Data Action ReporT program—that will provide ALPA members with one more way to reach out and obtain assistance.

Has the reduction of accidents in the United States and Canada during the last decade decreased CIRP’s workload?

McFadden: Not particularly because CIRP addresses significant incidents as well as accidents that oftentimes occur outside a pilot’s control. It may be something like a cabin-air-quality event, such as smoke or fumes in the aircraft cabin; an unexpected encounter with birds on takeoff; or unpredicted severe turbulence.

Events like these can rattle pilots’ core belief structure that every time they go to work, they’re going to return home safely. We may actually be getting busier due to a greater awareness of CIRP and a willingness to use one of the tenets of good CRM—marshaling all available resources in response to a challenge.

Who administers CIRP?

McFadden: For most ALPA pilot groups, there’s an MEC CIRP chair and vice chair. The Association has an extensive group of CIRP pilot volunteers across the United States and Canada, along with a global outreach network with many international carriers, some of whose peers were trained by ALPA. When an event occurs, the MEC CIRP chair normally reaches out to peers to see who is available and can respond quickly.

I’m the national CIRP chair, and my primary roles are to support the MEC chairs and to develop strategic plans for the program’s future one, two, and five years from now.

When a pilot experiences an accident or significant incident, what happens?

McFadden: Physiological events take place in the body. We know that the body reacts to trauma by releasing adrenaline and other compounds into the nervous system. These chemicals accelerate the body’s pulse and respiratory rate and can even mask pain.

Properly addressing questions pilots may have is critical. We know that statistically a pilot experiencing a traumatic event who speaks with a CIRP representative has a much higher probability of remaining employed in aviation during the next two years. CIRP involvement may help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, and obsessive thoughts about the event. When we train pilot peers, we stress that they’re helping normal pilots who are having normal reactions to an abnormal situation.

What kind of training do CIRP volunteers undergo?

McFadden: As an approved ICISF instructor, I just conducted a training class for 60 pilot peers. It covered lots of information and techniques, as well as role-playing exercises. Volunteers aren’t therapists, but they need to understand how an affected pilot is processing what just happened and know the resources available. Peers also need to be able to apply what they’ve learned, and we’ve designed the training to be participative and very interactive.

I taught this recent class with the help of Mark Berg, an ALPA consultant and the director of the Employee Assistance Program at the MD Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas, who was a tremendous resource for both me and the students.

CIRP offers individual and group classes. Peers participate in an initial course and periodically return to ensure currency.

How did you get involved in CIRP?

McFadden: Shortly after I was hired by United, I served as the ALPA first officer rep in Chicago. In attending meetings and listening to the committee reports, I found CIRP work to be particularly compelling and clearly helpful for pilots. Capt. Steve Pocock (United), a former CIRP chair, was a great inspiration. He did wonderful work and helped me understand the powerful effect it had.

In addition, my dad was a United pilot, and, as a teenager, I recall him walking the picket line during the 1985 United pilots’ strike. I remember him talking to fellow members who were having a difficult time with what was happening. It was truly meaningful for me to watch him aid pilots in that way, just by listening and being there for them.

McFadden, right, with his father, Capt. John A. McFadden (United, Ret.). The younger McFadden served as first officer on his father’s retirement flight from Germany to Chicago, Ill.

What is your most memorable CIRP moment?

McFadden: The first CIRP debriefing I conducted. I was new to the committee and flew out to San Francisco. A crew was involved in a severe wake turbulence encounter. Shortly after takeoff, another aircraft caused their plane to roll violently and both flight attendants and passengers were injured.

I distinctly remember the debriefing. It lasted about three hours, and some of the flight attendants were there in wheelchairs. You could see the relief on the pilots’ faces after it was over. The point Capt. Pocock emphasized in helping me prepare for this was to “trust the process.” He was right. I followed the procedures to facilitate the discussion; it worked like magic.

F/O John Taylor (United), ALPA’s Pilot Assistance chair, describes this program as CIRP 2.0. What’s new?

McFadden: We’re refocusing on our core mission and the ICISF instructional models we use. Mark Berg has been an excellent co-instructor, bringing much valuable insight to our training sessions. We’re working to be more active and more engaged with our chairs and the other Pilot Assistance Committees—adopting a collaborative and effective modality. Plus, developing one-, two-, and five-year plans for the program that are shared and understood by the network of MEC CIRP chairs is quite useful.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

McFadden: I want to thank the MEC CIRP chairs for their dedication and passion. I also want to thank F/Os John Taylor and Travis Ludwig (United), the Pilot Assistance vice chair, and especially Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s president, and Capt. Bob Fox, ALPA’s first vice president and national safety coordinator. We haven’t always had this level of support, and it’s really appreciated. With their help, my goal is to make this program the gold standard, and we’re making great progress. The overwhelming sentiment I’ve heard from pilots who’ve used the program is that it really made a difference in their lives. It’s my honor and pleasure to be involved with the CIRP family.

This article was originally published in the November 2019 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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