Critical Incident Stress Management Team: Supporting Controllers In Need
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Every time air traffic controllers arrive at work, NATCA members are entrusted with protecting the livelihoods of thousands of passengers and the reputation of the American air system as the safest in the world. But planes still crash, there are still close calls, and there is always a chance, small as it may be, that a controller could go to work and experience something that dramatically changes the way he or she feels about their world.
For nearly 17 years, NATCA has promoted its Critical Incident Stress Management Team (CISM), a group of volunteer counselors that supports members who have witnessed a traumatic event like a deadly crash.
The CISM leadership is composed of 13 controllers who, in addition to their normal job duties, spend a week each month on call in case a member contacts the hotline (1-800-266-0895, PIN #24911, or 202-505-CISM) and is in need of help. Boston Center member Tom Morin has been working with CISM since its start in 1995, said often times controllers don’t realize they have been impacted until days later, or don’t know where to turn for help. That, he said, is why CISM exists.
Morin said the program was moribund during the Bush Administration, but new leadership and the February 2009 crash of a regional airline jet near Buffalo, which killed 50, were the catalysts for its revival.
“We were still around during the Bush years, but the FAA at the time kind of pushed us aside and didn’t recruit new volunteers,” Morin said. “We had basically been ignored. But after the Colgan Air crash, we wrote a letter to the FAA saying basically, ‘the next time there’s a crash we may not be here and we need to be.’”
Morin said in 2010 that the FAA sponsored CISM training for the first time in many years and the program has been “fully institutionalized.” He said people who use CISM always greatly appreciate the help.
When a NATCA member calls the hotline or sends an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, the volunteer on call begins an action plan to assist the affected parties. Morin said, in large-scale events like Buffalo, he will travel to the facility that day to assess the mental and physical health of controllers who witnessed the critical incident.
Mike Matherne, a member from Houston Center who has been volunteering with CISM since 1996, said while it is often a good idea to get in touch with controllers the day of an event, it is sometimes optimal to wait until a couple days after the event to travel.
“Sometimes people need time to digest after they have witnessed something traumatic like a major loss of life or a near miss,” Matherne said. “We are flexible, the whole point is to be flexible.”
Matherne added that he is not a counselor by trade, and he has learned all he knows about the craft from CISM. He added that union members respond in strong numbers to calls for more volunteers.
“We have a lot of supporters in the union and we always get quality people,” Matherne said. “People always want to help out and learn, and the training program allows them to assist without having a background in any type of therapy.”
Morin said all correspondence with CISM is confidential. He said controllers haven’t been, and shouldn’t be, afraid to get in touch with them if they witness something terrible.
“We are here to help, that’s what the whole point is and there is no shame in that,” Morin said.
If you have been affected by a traumatic air traffic control event, please call 1-800-266-0895, PIN #24911, or 202-505-CISM or e-mail at email@example.com.
For more information, please go to the CISM Web site at http://www.natcacism.com/.