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Supporting Each Other —Critical Incidents and Trauma in Skydiving
Features | Sep 22, 2021
Supporting Each Other —Critical Incidents and Trauma in Skydiving

David Goldstein

Ours is a glorious sport. We socialize with people from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe. We fly in different and exciting aircraft and throw ourselves into various in-air disciplines day and night. Conviviality is one of our strongest watchwords. At the end of the day, we talk excitedly about what we’ve done and get ready to do it all again the next day and the next and the next.

Although our safety-related training and education is ongoing—beginning with the first-jump course, continuing through each and every facet of the student progression, Safety Day, informal discussions (e.g., “Why did the last load land in more than one direction?”) and more—there are still times in our blessed sport when things go terribly wrong. Almost every month, we read about skydiver deaths or injuries in Parachutist. These articles, which serve to provide teachable moments, appear in a sanitized and dispassionate format in order to protect identities and locations of those involved.

While tragic, studying such issues makes it possible for all of us to become better skydivers. Such analyses often stimulate discussion and debate, providing the opportunity to evolve and improve our skills. But we must remember that there may be emotional over- and undertones to such discussions, especially for those who were closest to the skydivers directly involved. The emotional aftereffects of such incidents can range from mild sadness to debilitating psychological conditions. As we mull over what happened, it’s important to ask, “Do we owe our community any type of assistance or intervention?” The answer may well be, “Yes.”

Perhaps We Can Do More
By way of example, we have begun to publicly acknowledge the psychological aspects of military warfare over the last decade or so. In addition to traumatic brain injury (TBI), these issues include acute stress disorder (ASD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Recognition is a good thing. In parallel and for decades, the same has occurred within the emergency and first-responder services in our own communities. Police, fire and emergency medical services personnel confront serious, life-threatening and life-altering issues every day. As a result, these groups have had a great deal of experience dealing with critical incidents and the reactions that occur during and after the events, and they have developed and used legitimate methods for dealing with these issues. Skydiving can use these approaches as well.

A critical incident is simply defined as a sudden, powerful event that falls outside the range of normal human experience. Strong emotional impact accompanies the events. Thus, the death or injury of a fellow skydiver may well be considered a critical incident. The concepts and practices of critical-incident stress management (CISM) and critical-incident stress debriefing (CISD) offer accepted approaches for dealing with such events. By incorporating CISM into their operations, a drop zone may prepare for such occurrences. This involves education, training and even the assignment of individuals to specific CISM-related tasks. No one should view these preparations as creating a negative, self-fulfilling prophecy; it is no different than skydivers training in CPR, AED and first aid.

CISD is a formal, structured group process that serves a very important purpose when a critical incident occurs. Trained and certified facilitators conduct this process, and they abide by a few rules for conducting the debriefing itself. This includes conducting the process in a comfortable, quiet setting. Ideally, only those who were immediately involved in the incident should attend the first debriefing (usually within 24 to 48 hours, but this is flexible). A second or subsequent get together can occur for those who were not directly involved but have a legitimate interest in the matter (e.g., other skydivers, office staff, manifest staff, etc.). Additional, smaller groups can meet to discuss the matter at hand in more detail.

In reality, it is very possible that many people will attend the first scheduled get-together, and the original intent of the initial debriefing may be obscured. For skydivers, it is probably best to engage the group in respectful, general and non-judgmental conversation and try to schedule another meeting time for the originally-intended group as soon as possible. It is very important that participants realize that this is not part of any investigation and that the process is as confidential as possible. It is acceptable to elicit assurances from participants to maintain some degree of confidentiality, but take them with a grain of salt. The reality is that when a large group meets, confidentiality may be difficult to guarantee.

It is very important that everyone in the room gives respect to everyone else in the room. A CISD is not the time for criticism or critiques. All in the room are equal. The DZO does not outrank the newest jumper (or non-jumper, for that matter). Further, the process is strictly voluntary. No one is required to participate. It is OK to attend and listen. Tears are absolutely acceptable.

The formal CISD process allows participants to air the intense emotions associated with the incident and begin any grieving process. It is legitimate group support designed to dispel rumor and fallacy. Of great importance is the fact that CISD reinforces the belief that intense emotional reactions are the norm in such situations and that people may have to prepare for protracted grief.

The procedure also includes education concerning the emotional, physiological, behavioral and cognitive byproducts of the incidents. Included is additional tutelage relative to stress responses and reinforcement that additional assistance is available and at times necessary. CISD is not psychotherapy, but there is a very real possibility that insight and commensurate understanding may occur.

Making It Happen
A not unexpected difficulty may be in locating trained individuals to conduct the process. Possibilities include making inquiries to an established employee-assistance program (through someone’s place of work or the DZ’s insurance carrier) or police or fire departments. Some states have such teams in place for community critical incidents such as natural disasters (in New Hampshire, it’s the Disaster Behavioral Health Response Team). The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (icisf.org) maintains a list of organizations and groups who may provide such assistance, as well.

It is so important to remember that just because we consider ourselves hard-core skydivers who enjoy activities that amaze most of the population, we have not abandoned our humanity. It’s OK to hurt and grieve. It’s also OK to confront the critical incident, analyze it, compartmentalize it, make it a part of us and move on. In fact, the vast majority of us will be OK in the long run.

Having done all of this, we should accept the fact that our lives will be changed and that we can still move forward and enjoy our time in the sky.

About the Author
David Goldstein, D-25352, calls Pepperell Skydiving Center in Massachusetts his home DZ. He has been jumping for almost 20 years and is a USPA AFF Instructor and Safety and Training Advisor. Goldstein has been a police officer for 41-plus years and, when needed, facilitates CISDs for first responders and medical personnel throughout New England. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s in public health and a PhD in counseling and human services. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Experts in traumatic stress and is board certified in forensic traumatology.

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