Stress management for atcos in critical situations (smacs)

The dynamic development of air transport in the last decades leads to a risk of increasing the absolute share of aviation incidents. Air Traffic Controllers (ATCOs) are among those groups of employees that are more likely to be exposed to critical incidents. Coping with such incidents may hamper professional activity, may lead to prolonged psychosomatic problems in affected individuals and may cause financial losses for the organization. 

Therefore, psychosocial support programs are part of the Safety Culture of every aviation organization.

In 2008 Eurocontrol developed and published guidelines for implementing programs for stress management after critical incidents among all member states – “Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Implementation Guidelines”.

A critical incident is “a situation which induces unusually strong emotional reactions in an ATCO.”

Some of the states and organizations in the field of aviation implement their own systems for stress management under different names, but applying the CISM principles. Such an example is The Spanish Association of Civil Aviation Commercial Pilots (Association Española de Pilotos – AEP), which implemented a program named Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP).

In 2014 BULATSA started an initiative for developing and implementing a program for psychosocial support named Stress Management for ATCOs in Critical Situations (SMACS) -  it is a system for providing psychosocial support to ATCOs that have experienced a critical incident.

Currently 24 ATCOs at the Area and Airport Control Centres of BULATSA have been trained to provide such support. The so called “peers” or “supporting colleagues” work in accordance with the adopted rules and good practices in the field. Psychological practice has shown that employees who have experienced unusual negative incidents in the line of work or an incident of personal nature, can recover more quickly and improve their quality of life and work by confiding in a colleague or a mental health professional.

In high risk systems like BULATSA, these programs include specialized intervention by psychological first aid professionals and by trained employees that have experienced critical incidents. This method is based on the principle that colleagues should support one another. It contributes to the overall decrease of negative consequences associated with an incident, provides faster recovery and transition to normal functioning and return to work, increases the levels of flight safety and decreases potential financial loss for the organization.  

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