What was the plan? What actually happened?
By Heath Cota and Matt Ginder | FireRescue Magazine, Volume 9 Issue 4
We had just returned from a marathon assignment chasing fires across Southern California. The crew was wrapping up, washing the buggies and refurbishing equipment. The only thing I had on my mind was a shower and a cold beer. But then the superintendent ordered us to the training room. It was time to debrief what we had done for the last three weeks.
The captains referenced their notepads and proceeded to illustrate all the mistakes and errors we had made. We listened intently and tried to recall all the minute details that were blurred by time and emotions.
This was my first experience with a debriefing, and yours may be similar. The premise was good: Identify the mistakes we made and how to correct them for the future. However, the execution was not. The debrief was more of a one-way critique, focusing mainly on the negative aspects and rarely mentioning successes. In addition, so much time had passed between the event and the debriefing that the details were lost. The most important thing we learned: Hope that your name doesn’t come up in a debriefing.
Today, fortunately, the fire service has made a lot of progress in how to conduct a debrief, now called the “after-action review” (AAR). In this article, I’ll explain what an AAR is and provide some tips for conducting them successfully.
What Is an AAR?
The U.S. Army institutionalized the AAR process in the 1980s to create an avenue for feedback, promote unit evaluation and improve cohesion. One common definition reads, “An After Action Review (AAR) is a professional discussion of an event or operation, focused on performance standards, that enables soldiers to discover for themselves what happened, why it happened and how to sustain strengths and improve on weaknesses. It is a tool leaders and units can use to get maximum benefit from every incident or project.”1
Today, the AAR is standard practice worldwide by military organizations, governments, private industry and the wildland fire community. The AAR is a valuable tool for high-risk professions, where small mistakes can have disastrous results.
AARs can be conducted at any organizational level and can be used for any assignment. Regardless of what is being debriefed, the AAR follows the same general format involving the exchange of ideas and observations with the focus of improving proficiency. The AAR does not dwell on failure nor does it focus only on success, but rather on how to leverage strengths and weaknesses to improve performance. It should not be used as a tool for investigations, disciplinary actions or critical incident stress debriefing.
4 Key Questions
The AAR involves four general questions:
1. What was the plan? Establish what was planned at the beginning of the operational period and measure whether the personnel understood what was expected of them.
2. What actually happened? Identify changes that happened during the assignment that differed from the original briefing and measure the effectiveness of briefings. Pull together multiple perspectives from team members to build a shared picture of what really happened.
3. Why did it happen? Analyze cause and effect. In any operation there are generally a combination of successes and failures.
4. What could we do different next time? Identify actions or procedures that can be executed more efficiently and areas where teams are preforming well and should sustain. Tip: Focus this part of the discussion on items that you can fix, such as briefings, leader’s intent, tactics and strategies, information dissemination, equipment maintenance and adherence to SOPs. Avoid focusing on external influences outside of your control. And recognize good performance and innovative solutions to problems.
The first two questions are intended for the leader to gauge how well they communicated the initial plan and what changes occurred throughout the operation. The first question provides valuable feedback to help leaders hone their mission briefing as well as be able to deliver a clear intent. The second question plays into the “fog of war”: As conditions change, shifting between danger and opportunity, the plan changes, and how well we communicate those changes can greatly determine the success of the mission and the team. As a leader it’s always interesting to hear what the team understood compared to what we think we communicated.
The heart of organizational learning occurs within the last two questions. The third question, “why did it happen,” allows for the leader to explain changes in the operation that either weren’t clarified at the time or the situation didn’t allow for due to urgency. This brings the team members into the decision-making process of the leader, which helps to answer the timeless question of “Why in the hell are we being asked to do this?” Through the team’s discussion of key points in the operation, either success or areas needing correction should have been brought out. The last question is where the team identifies those measures and the means to implement them in the next operation.
Facilitation Is Key
The facilitation of the AAR is more important than the AAR method. Far too often facilitators merely go through the motions by asking the questions and allowing rote answers:
What was the plan? “To put out the fire.”
What actually happened? “We put the fire out.”
Why did it happen? “We put it out.”
What could we do different next time? “Nothing.”
Nothing is gained or learned when the facilitator merely asks questions. For an AAR to have meaning, the facilitator must be able to pull out answers from these questions, not just treat them as a checklist. The crew leader does not necessarily have to be the facilitator; however, facilitation is crucial to a high-quality AAR discussion that engages the whole group and leaves them motivated for the next operation.
There are several things to consider when facilitating an AAR:
• Timing. An AAR should generally be no longer than 15–20 minutes. According to the U.S. Army guidelines, roughly 25% of the time should be devoted to the first two questions, 25% to the third question and 50% to the fourth question.
Generally AARs take place at the end of an operational period; however, conducting an AAR after a significant event or during a tactical pause may be warranted. Note: There will always be barriers no matter when the AAR takes place. Individuals at the end of a shift are often tired and hungry; that doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t preform an AAR. When AARs occur soon after the action, they tend to include more details and are generally more effective.
• Location. An AAR can be facilitated in any location that is conducive for focused discussion without interruption or distractions. The wildland fire community tends to utilize the field—either on the line, at the trucks or in camp. This all depends on the conditions and what’s the most effective. Be flexible in the format and location.
• Ground rules. The ground rules established by the facilitator are crucial to maintain focus and direction.
- Make sure that everyone participates.
- Allow all crewmembers the opportunity to share honest opinions and learn from each other
- Focus on what happened, not who did it.
- Reinforce that it is OK to disagree. Differing points of view and conflicts need to be addressed (disagreement is not disrespect).
- Tact and civility are required; personal attacks are forbidden.
- Go through the event in logical sequence and compare performance against the task and intent. This can be more difficult than it sounds at times.
- The facilitator enters the discussion only when necessary to keep things focused. There is a tendency for the facilitator to dominate the discussion, rendering the AAR ineffective.
- End on a positive note.
Tip: Conducting effective AARs takes some practice. Rather than waiting for a significant incident to use an AAR, integrate them into your day-to-day calls. Doing so will make it easier to keep the practice alive as stress and time demands increase during a busy fire season.
Integrating AARs in Your Department
When the AAR was introduced to the wildland fire community, the main challenge we faced was acceptance. Like any new idea, some latched onto it and drove the initiative forward, and some didn’t see the value or felt that it was something they’d been doing all along (“You’re just calling it by a different name”). Today, the AAR is a widely used tool in the wildland fire service.
Structural departments that respond to wildland fire calls, however, may be less familiar with the AAR. If that’s the case for you, here are some tips to consider:
- Remember that the intent behind the AAR is to have a professional discussion within a unit to identify strengths and areas to improve on for the next operation.
- Don’t get discouraged when an AAR doesn’t go well. In some cases the discussion happens organically and you have a positive AAR. Other times stress, fatigue and friction may get in the way. The summer that I was first introduced to the AAR, our first experiences weren’t positive, but as we kept at it, the crew became more familiar and experienced with the process, the AARs became more effective and our crew cohesion increased significantly.
- Focus on active listening rather than merely asking a series of questions. Methodology is ingrained in our culture; we have more checklists than you can shake the proverbial stick at. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the four standard questions to keep the discussion going and dig into what really happened. Experiment with different formats to see what works best for your crew (see Sidebar -, p. 72).
- Consider using the AAR as a training tool. At first, the captain will usually serve as facilitator. As your crew becomes more experienced with AARs, however, you can shift the facilitator role around, providing the opportunity for crewmembers to gain experience in facilitating a group discussion.
Firefighters bring lots of tools to wildland fire calls to help them fight fire effectively and efficiently. The AAR is another tool that can help us do that. With a little practice, the AAR can become as valuable to your crew as a shovel or a line.
1. Headquarters Department of the Army. A leader’s guide to after-action reviews. Washington, D.C., 1993.
Sidebar – AAR Methodologies
There are many different ways to conduct an after-action review. Following are just two examples.
It’s 0’dark thirty, the crew has worked the fire for 16 hours straight, no one has eaten a hot meal for days. No time for the AAR? Think again! The idea behind the Chainsaw AAR is simple: speed. When you need to get an AAR done quickly, try this simple format.
1. Have the team form a loose circle.
2. Start with a single team member and ask just one of these questions:
- What is one thing that went well on this shift?
- What is one thing that didn’t go well on this shift?
- What is one thing you would do different next time?
- What is one thing you learned today?
3. Continue around the circle until everyone has had a chance. It may be necessary to place a time limit on each individual (e.g., 30 seconds).
4. Avoid unnecessary discussion (dinner is waiting).
5. Note the comments for future discussion.
The “What” Approach
With a temporary task group or team that is put together for a specific or one-time assignment, the standard AAR format may not work, especially if many of the participants are not familiar with it. In this case, asking three simple “what” questions may provide useful feedback:
1. What? Begin by asking the group to describe the event being reviewed and desired outcomes from the discussion. Some possible trigger questions might include:
- What was the team’s main effort or focus for this event?
- What is the purpose of reviewing this event?
- What expectations do you have for today’s discussion?
2. So what? Gather observations on what actions were effective and what actions were problematic. Trigger questions include:
- So what are your general reactions after this event?
- So what specific things were difficult or created friction during the event?
- So what positive actions occurred during the event?
3. Now what? Finish by identifying any proposed follow-up actions. Trigger questions include:
- Now what learning points can we take away from this event?
- Now what follow-up action should happen?
- Now what aspects should be worked on first?
- Now what would the consequence be if there is no follow-up action?
For more AAR methodologies and support tools, visit www.fireleadership.gov.
Heath Cota is the district fire management officer on the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest in Shoshone, Idaho. He started his fire service career in Southern California in 1994 as crewmember with the BLM on the Kern Valley Interagency Hotshot Crew and later worked as a squad leader, foreman and superintendent on the Sawtooth Interagency Hotshot Crew. He has developed after-action review training aides and instructed leadership courses across the country. As a member of the NWCG Leadership Committee, Cota assisted the San Diego and El Paso fire departments with integrating the L-280 Followership to Leadership curriculum.
Matt Ginder, assistant fire management officer for the Minidoka Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest (Idaho), has been in fire management since 2001. He has a Master’s Degree from the University of Idaho, with a focus on fire ecology and the use of physics-based fire behavior models to evaluate the effectiveness of fuel treatments in preventing structure ignitions. Ginder is a qualified ICT3 and DIVS.