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Are You Conducting After-Action Reviews? Looking Back is Essential to Moving Forward

Having spent almost 15 years as a first responder and almost 10 years working in the emergency management field, I learned long ago that after-action reviews (AAR) are indispensable tools in an organization’s constant pursuit of improved performance and efficiency.

As a firefighter, we conducted an AAR after every training event, fire, vehicle accident, technical rescue or other operation, no matter how large or small. After returning to the station, we would gather in the training room and go over the call, from the time we received it to the time we pulled back into the engine bay. What went right, what went wrong, what are the “controllables” that we failed to control? We looked at everything: the time it took us to get out the door, the route that the driver decided to take to the call and how everyone performed their assigned job on scene. As author Jocko Willink says, “If you are not looking at yourself with a critical eye, you are not going to reach your potential,” and firefighters can be some of the most critical people on the planet.

When you live in the world that first responders do, the old cliché of “seconds count” is completely true. Take that extra second that it took the engine officer to put their boots on and add to it time associated with other unexpected circumstances—a detour en route to the call due to road work the driver did not know about, the new person riding in the back not knowing exactly where the equipment was stored, the place the battalion chief parked their car made it a bit more difficult for the medic to access the patient. The seconds add up quickly. These are all circumstances we could control, but unless we truly looked at our actions, we would never have known there were issues that needed to be solved.

Hindsight is always 20/20, they say. In order to truly understand why a decision was made, one must evaluate the context that caused it. Although there are other aspects of an incident or exercise besides decision points that should be looked at when conducting your AAR, this article focuses on evaluating the decisions made and how an incident management software like WebEOC can help in that evaluation. After all, during an actual incident, the decisions that are made can have life or death consequences.

Return to the Moment a Choice was Made

When training folks on our incident management solution, WebEOC, this is an area I always emphasize. Because of its reporting capabilities, and the fact that the system time stamps every change and captures information about the user who entered or changed the information, WebEOC offers a unique capability during an AAR to evaluate critical decisions made during an incident or training exercise. These features allow an organization to return to the moment a choice was made and take an in-depth look at what information was available that led them to their final decision. Users can also review information captured in their incident management system to rebuild in their minds exactly what the situation was at the time the decision was made to help them better understand the reasoning behind it.

Using this information during the AAR to evaluate the decisions made provides two positive organizational outcomes. First, it helps validate that the decision made was the best decision possible given the available information and the situation at the time. Second, it can help identify gaps in the information available in the moment that, had those details been available, might have resulted in a better decision. Such evaluation enables an organization to make adjustments to its information-gathering processes and procedures , so that the next time an incident occurs, they have better or more complete information available to make better decisions.

If you do nothing more than play Monday morning quarterback after an incident, exercise or training event, then you are selling yourself and your organization short, and missing the best opportunity to improve your organization’s operations. We recommend that you always take time to conduct a thorough AAR. Don’t just look at what went poorly and what went well; instead, scrutinize the decisions that were made and evaluate them using the information captured within your incident management solution.

By continually analyzing choices made and actions taken, and adjusting your information-gathering processes and procedures accordingly, your organization will continue to improve on the decisions that are made during those critical moments.

Written by

Akshay Birla

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