After Action Reviews

Captain Ian Martin, Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services

by Captain Ian Martin, Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services

As firefighters, we constantly are striving to get better. Each incident brings unique challenges where we could have operated in a more effective and proficient manner. This does not mean that we made mistakes that could have altered the outcome. It simply means that we could have done better, because at the end of the day, we ultimately should be the best we can be for our community customers. After action reviews (AAR) help us to do just that. It is a comprehensive review of our actions on an emergency scene. It creates opportunities to get better. Many times, AARs are simply not conducted or seem meaningless, but the benefits are endless.

A properly-conducted AAR across a department can help drive change. It turns meaningless learning into tacit, and helps to build trust among crew members and to overcome a fear of making mistakes. When an AAR is applied correctly, it can be a key aspect of learning and motivation for crews. Crews become engaged in the review and, with input from all areas of the group, can become an unbelievable educating moment.

There are many ways to properly conduct an AAR. Depending on the incident size, type and issue or mistakes made, the review may take a different shape each time conducted. The review simply could involve your station crew or as complex as an entire battalion. The whole process should be kept simple and easy to remember. Below are a few questions, that when used, can assist in setting up and completing a successful AAR.

  1. What was the mission?
  2. What went well?
  3. What could have gone better?
  4. What might we have done differently?

Occasionally, information exchanged in an AAR moves into a discussion of blame or a lack of desire to discuss an occurrence. An AAR is trying to make crews and crew members better, and placing blame and punishment makes for an unsuccessful review. These attitudes create distrust amongst crews and does nothing to improve crews’ future performances. Creating a blameless and open atmosphere, firefighters are more likely to be open about what they saw and what they did. This type of environment maximizes learning.

Leaders are responsible for ensuring feedback from the reviews become actionable training to reinforce correction. It is essential that the education gained from a good review is shared. Lessons learned from an AAR should be distributed so that others can benefit as well.

AARs exist only to improve the performance of individuals and the team. These are not gripe sessions or an opportunity to point fingers or to chastise members for making mistakes, but a path forward to improve the outcome on the next run.

Ian Martin is a Captain with Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services. He has 22 years of service and is currently stationed at Station 19. He holds an Associate’s Degree in Fire Science and a Bachelor’s Degree in Emergency Management.

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