Know Your Rights: Traumatic Events and Critical Incident Stress Management Resources (CISM)
Friday, October 12, 2012

By Gretchen McMullen

What is a traumatic event and what are the resources available to air traffic controllers following a traumatic air traffic event? Just as police officers who are involved in a fatal shooting on the job are offered post-critical incident stress counseling, air traffic controllers sometimes experience symptoms of acute stress following a critical incident event.  

NATCA’s CISM team is an important resource available to bargaining unit employees who are involved in traumatic events on the job. NATCA CISM provides specially trained peer counselors who are available 24/7 to provide peer support and assistance following a traumatic event, such as a fatal aircraft accident.

NATCA’s CISM Team has been very successful in assisting controllers. The team recently won an award for its collaboration with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to ensure that employees receive the support they need following a traumatic event. The CISM team is made up of a dedicated group of peer counselors/air traffic controllers with special training to help their peers deal with and overcome traumatic events. 

NATCA CISM peer counselors are often dispatched to facilities to educate controllers about the signs and symptoms of critical incident stress and to assist controllers with working through traumatic events. This may also be accomplished over the telephone, as is frequently the case.

A traumatic event is defined as an experience that causes an unusually strong emotional reaction that has the potential to interfere with your ability to function either at work or in general.  

Even though the event may be over, the effects can remain or even get stronger for a short while. It is quite normal for people to experience emotional “aftershocks” following a traumatic event. The NATCA CISM website describes the physical, cognitive and emotional symptoms of critical incident stress reactions and offers basic guidelines on what to do and what not to do in this situation.  
Reaching out and getting support and assistance are important steps because a traumatic event can be difficult to handle for air traffic controllers — a workforce of highly trained, dedicated professionals who hold themselves to the highest levels of perfection and who perform day in and day out knowing that lives and property are at stake.  

Keeping in mind that controllers are, after all, human, and mistakes are inevitable in such a complex, busy airspace system, it helps to remember that you are not in this alone and that the NATCA CISM team of specially trained peer counselors stand ready to assist you and your facility.  

The most important thing to remember is that critical incident stress reactions are normal. Reaching out to the NATCA CISM team for assistance is critical to the ability of controllers to recover and regain confidence and focus after a traumatic event.  

For more information about how to recognize the signs of acute critical incident stress and to get assistance, please click HERE.