European CISM Conference


The European CISM (ECISM) conference took place at the beginning of October and Julija Razmislavičienė attended it for FoxATM. Here is her report, starting with a general introduction to critical incident stress management (CISM) followed by more details about the presentations.

It is well known to everyone who works in the aviation industry that an incident or accident that happens in the air or on the ground with an aircraft, or an unusual situation on the air traffic controller’s position has to be reported. This is for the safety team to initiate an investigation and find possible solutions so that the same scenario  would not happen again, or would not lead to the same outcome. This is what we are used to. Every rule there is was written for this reason. Every gadget, feature, procedure is created for the safety of the passengers and the crew on board the aircraft and the investigation should suggest what could be changed to make every flight safe.

This is all about processes and technology. But what happens with a person’s mind, their emotions and their performance when they live through such an unusual situation? What thoughts arise and what fears occur in the pilot’s or air traffic controller’s mind after an emergency descent, or a loss of separation in adverse weather conditions for example? Many professionals may suffer for a longer period of time if no support is provided on time.

Luckily, CISM is defined by European regulating authorities and lies under the stress management for the crews and air traffic controllers. 

The ECISM network was created years ago, with a nudge from the International critical incident stress management. It is working for the sake of well-being of the essential workers in aviation and other fields where for example firefighters, doctors or nurses may need the same support from a peer, which is a reliable colleague working next to them or someone with a similar experience.

At the beginning of October, the ECISM board together with Eurocontrol and ENAIRE organized a conference for peers and their trainers all around Europe, to gather and share their experience, best practices and knowledge. I represented FoxATM and met a group of people which afterwards became a team, as Guadalupe Cortes from the organizing committee correctly put it. Those are people with the same intention: to help and to support the one next to us who is in need.

The conference began with a speech from the CEO of ENAIRE, Angel Luis Arias and a very informative and very warm presentation from Guadalupe about resilience, what it is and  why it is needed. What caught my attention were the components of resilience: 

  • actively facing fears
  • trying to solve problems
  • regular physical exercise
  • optimism
  • morality
  • promoting social support
  • friendships
  • role models
  • being open minded and flexible in the way one thinks about the problems.

These are very important points a person can try to seek and practice in everyday life in order to become more resilient and less fragile.

Guadalupe also mentioned what causes stress at work and at home for air traffic controllers and the impact of it while working on the ATCO position. Here I would like to elaborate giving several examples of work related stress - something to think about:

  • High levels of workload
  • Inappropriate, vague procedures
  • Supervision of trainees or less experienced colleagues
  • Unsuitable or unreliable equipment
  • Interpersonal conflicts
  • Poor management/social dialogue
  • Poor rostering
  • Unusual or emergency situations

Resilience helps us to cope with everyday stress, so what builds it up? What helps us stay resilient? For the air traffic controller it might be knowledge, experience, prioritization, time, self-confidence, support, team cohesion, trust and many more.

It is very important, Guadalupe added, to seek support and provide it to one in need, to know that we are gonna be ok when we take care of ourselves, using our strengths and developing gratitude.

The presentation “PTSD and me” given by Dr. Steven Shorrock also touched the hearts of the listeners. Together with statistical data of how many suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Dr. Shorrock talked about his own revelations and his experience in finding out the symptoms of PTSD. He also spoke about getting professional help, the needed attention and about starting the healing process. We should not be afraid to speak about the trauma we experienced, he said, and acknowledge that there is someone who can help bring us back to a life we deserve. A traumatic event doesn’t always lead to PTSD, but if it does, there are signs from which we can understand that professional help is needed. These signs are:

  • avoidance (external, internal)
  • re-experience, like  dreams, images, memories, feelings, sense of current threat (hypervigilant, easily startled)
  • impact on life (relationships, parenting, social life etc.).

Several other presentations like “Organizational practices in aviation peer support and critical incident stress management” by Johann Wium Magnusson, “CISM4PSP in a European Business Aviation Operator” by Dr. Michaela Schwarz, “Stress, its influences and the power of mindset” by Ilias Tsisios gave the audience more ideas on how the stress management is working or should work and some guidance about what could lead to a potentially better coping with the stressful situations or our reactions to them.

Dr. Shiri Spector then led us through her journey and a mind blowing work with “Critical incident debriefing in the UK: Supporting staff in social and healthcare settings”. Critical incident debriefing (CID), which is a very important part of the whole CISM program, has multiple objectives:

  • to indicate care and compassion and to offer immediate support
  • to mitigate the psychological impact of critical incident
  • to facilitate recovery, restore well being and build resilience
  • to educate, sign post and identify those who might benefit from further support.

“Uncontained emotional experiences result in our inability to know these experiences… creating isolated islands of knowledge that cannot be connected in thoughts or sentences… the associations between thoughts make knowledge possible”. This quote by Prof. C. Fred Alford says it all about what CISM should be and why Air Navigation Service providers, airlines and other players in ATM should consider promoting it. Not only for their essential employees but also for the support of the whole staff and to be ready and deal with the emotional crisis after an unusual event.

The next presentation was about the Polish unpleasant experience throughout this year and their ways of supporting co-workers. Another presentation followed about mental health of the cabin crew and the very last, but not least: “Expanding the CISM continuum of care” where Dr. George S. Everly gave his insights about CISM programs, the need for continuation, recommendations on how to do it and much more.

CISM is only a part of stress management, but it plays a huge role in caring for people’s needs. It is a voluntary program in which everyone can participate if they can listen. It should not be pushed or somehow forced on the employees. Sometimes, just knowing that somebody has your back helps. But if you are in a great need of talking about what just happened to you or to someone you worked with, remember that certified CISM peers are available and ready.

When it comes to any industry, humans are the first pillar we need to think about. Aviation is no different, on the contrary - it is in this industry where we just have to put essential workers first. CISM is just one of the programs that has to be in place and FoxATM might be an answer for you if you don’t know how or where to start -  we are ready to help you make it happen. Think about people first and they will provide the service you intend to provide.