Critical Incident Response for the COPA® Community


Posted on Sep 1, 2019 by Rick Beach

Perhaps you read the annual safety issue of COPA Pilot magazine, Vol. 14, No. 5, June 2019. If so, then you know that a major emphasis was the aftermath of a CAPS pull – the issue contained five articles by survivors of CAPS pulls.

Prompted by reading “From the Right Seat: After the Save – A Search for Healing” by Denean Richards, we heard from a COPA member who suggested we explore using the Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) to help our peers deal with stressful incidents.

The COPA Community Cares

That suggestion for a program to support other COPA members matches my experience of how well the COPA community cares.

When COPA Member Manfred Stolle died at Moncks Corner in 2009, other members contributed to an education fund for his young daughter.

When Stuart McClay-Smith attempted suicide in his Cirrus in 2013, COPA Member Pierre Redmond visited him in the hospital over several days and read to him the many COPA posts wishing him a speedy recovery.

John Fiscus created a CPPP course on the Psychology of Emergencies to help us understand the stress reactions that kept pilots in the simulator from following emergency procedures and deploying CAPS.

Our annual safety issue has expanded from statistics and lessons-learned toward dealing with the emotional aftermath of Cirrus events.

The suggestion for CIRP came from Terry Lutz, a COPA member who flies an SR20 and is a CSIP independent nstructor. But it was from Terry’s involvement as a test pilot in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) that he knew CIRP had the structure and resources to establish within COPA a peer support program for Cirrus pilots, their partners and families.

“Simply being there with the right knowledge makes a huge difference in people’s lives. It works in the flight test community and I know that it will work within COPA.”

Another shining example of the caring COPA community. Terry’s suggestion led me to COPA director Erik Gundersen who was familiar with CIRP from his days as a Delta pilot. Erik quickly gained approval to turn this into an opportunity for me to attend a CIRP training event and begin the exploration of how this might work within COPA.

Critical Incident Response Program

Aviation advocates initiated CIRP in the pilot’s union, ALPA (Air Line Pilots Association), as a response to the Aloha 243 event, where a large portion of the upper fuselage separated from the airplane.

Subsequently, CIRP groups have formed within several major airlines, cargo carriers, as well as the test pilot and test engineer communities within manufacturers. The program offers peer support to mitigate the psychological impact of an accident or incident and to aid in the normal recovery from these events before stress reactions affect job performance, families and health.

The CIRP training arms volunteers with the information and practices to help crewmembers who have been involved in a critical incident. Those volunteers learn to listen, focus on what survivors are experiencing and suggest means of coping with their stress reactions.

A crucial aspect of CIRP involves peers assisting peers— pilots helping pilots, engineers helping engineers, spouses helping spouses. Importantly, CIRP volunteers do not cross over into psychological counseling or mental health services, which may be handled by referrals to professionals.

When an incident happens, notification within the company triggers the CIRP chair to invite volunteers to assist. All interactions are confidential and secure, with no notes taken, no recordings made, no information shared. Peer support volunteers avoid taking on logistical tasks to remain focused on the well-being of the affected peer.

CIRP is Not ...

The CIRP training emphasized a few things that it does not do.

CIRP does not cross over into mental health services. If needed, the peer can provide referrals to professionals.

CIRP does not perform accident investigations. If the affected pilot or engineer has information useful to an accident investigator, then they are encouraged to write it down and convey it to the investigation team.

CIRP is not a one-shot conversation. Peers commit to staying in communication with the affected person until the stress reaction is dealt with or they are referred to a professional.

CIRP avoids hierarchy and judgment. Peers do not mix management and pilots in the same group. This ensures that the peer support volunteer knows the job experiences and does not control the consequences of a stress reaction.

CIRP Training at Boeing in Seattle

With the suggestion by Terry Lutz and support of Erik Gundersen, I traveled to Seattle for a three-day CIRP training session held at Boeing.

The trainer was Captain Louise Cullinan from Mesa Airlines, who formerly was the CIRP chair for the ALPA union. Louise has been championing CIRP within the aviation community for about 15 years, helping to establish it with several other organizations. She has also participated in providing peer support services in numerous major accidents.

The impetus for Boeing’s CIRP effort was a significant incident during a test flight of the 787 Dreamliner 10 years ago. The test pilot, Van Chaney, had a delayed stress reaction that took several years to overcome. Van learned about CIRP and worked to bring it into the test community at Boeing. He realized that a more immediate CIRP interaction would have helped him. Boeing developed a CIRP team that includes peer groups of test pilots, test engineers and engineering analysts.

What I attended was a combination of initial certification (three days) and annual recurrent training (any one of the days). Initial certification of peer support volunteers involves learning about the program, its structure within aviation groups, stress reactions, grief reactions, listening skills and ways to interact with peers. The training also covers how to work in a one-on-one process, stress defusing group process and stress debriefing group process.

Role playing scenarios help demonstrate the challenges in listening, avoiding judgment and dealing with some of the more common stress reactions. Watching how new peers dealt with the clever twists played by recurrent peers was very impactful. This is not easy to do well.

Adapting the CIRP Structure to GA

One of my objectives for attending the training, beyond becoming certified in the CIRP processes, was to consider how this would apply to the COPA community. We are not a union, airline or manufacturer. We are mostly amateur pilots flying a Cirrus for recreation or business.

However, for CIRP to be effective, peers need to volunteer to support a community. They must undergo certification training and annual recurrent training. They need to practice keeping their skills effective.

Within airlines and manufacturers, many peers volunteer. Generally, they do not get paid for this service, although they may get time off to provide peer assistance. Many travel at their own expense, which is easier for airline pilots with jump-seat privileges.

Adapting these structures from professional organizations seems a bit challenging for the social and recreational COPA community.

COPA Opportunity

During a lunch break, I gave Van Chaney, who is now chief pilot for the Boeing 777, a copy of the safety issue of COPA Pilot magazine. He was immediately supportive and encouraging. After he had read Denean Richard’s article about healing from surviving a CAPS pull, Van became emphatic: “She needs CIRP! COPA needs CIRP!”

We Need to Know Who is Interested

With the help of the Boeing team, Louise, Van, Terry, Erik, and several other CIRP participants who offered help, we have access to the guidance to adapt CIRP to our community.

We would like to know if you have experience with CIRP and would like to become involved with a similar program in COPA; do you have experience with peer support or want to learn how to be a good listener to help our peers in the community?

CIRP has resources in Europe, so we may be able to organize peer support volunteers around the world.

What You Can Do

If you have interest, please contact me at [email protected]

You can also attend Migration 17 in New Orleans. There, you can expect to hear more about the Critical Incident Response Program and ways to support our members through peer support volunteers.

As Terry and Van both emphasized, our community needs this program and its resources.

I agree.

Rick Beach joined COPA in 2001 and bought his Cirrus SR22 because of the community of owners and their focus on safety. He regularly posts online as the COPA de facto “accident historian” and is the COPA Safety Chair. In his spare time, he works with educational non-profits to improve K-12 math and science education.

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