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How to structure your informal tailboard AAR for greater impact and efficiency

It’s time to go beyond the free-flowing storytelling to maximize our after-action reviews

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Photo/Eric Linnenburger

By Eric Linnenburger

By now we all know the value of after-action reviews (AARs). There is no comparison to learning from our actual events, training evolutions and near misses, and these reviews serve as an invaluable tool for team and individual growth. They also play a key role in the fight to keep our firefighters mentally resilient and thriving on the job for long, healthy careers.

Maximizing effectiveness in AARs

Even though the AAR has become an organizational- and industry-wide expectation, it seems to be like so many things in the fire service where we bring attention to ideas and expectations but fail to articulate or teach our officers how to execute them. Certainly, some organizations have written the expectation into policy and do provide guidance, but that is simply not the norm. More have created policy for large events but offer no direction for the single-alarm or smaller event that still have lessons to share.

I imagine if we were to survey fire officers and ask them to define an AAR or even detail their AAR process, you would get a different response from all of them. This isn’t all bad. There can be value in just about any discussion and incident review process. However, are we being as effective as possible, maximizing our opportunities to learn from these reviews?

Types of AARs and delivery methods

There are many different AAR delivery structures, with an appropriate time for each, but they are not one size fits all. AARs should be delivered intentionally to either stand alone or build upon one another, depending on the situation. For the sake of this discussion, we will focus on AAR delivery facilitated by and directly involving line officers and crews. Such reviews can be broadly categorized as follows:

  • Informal crew “hot wash” often led by the company officer in the cab or at the kitchen table after clearing the scene.
  • Semi-formal on-scene tailboard AAR typically led by the incident commander prior to terminating the incident.
  • Formal, often-polished, forward-facing post-incident AAR typically presented days (or longer) after the event by a command team.

As it relates to the first two types of AARs, company officers should be cab or kitchen table “hot-washing” even the seemingly simplest single-company incidents. And battalion chiefs or second-level ICs should bring closure to events through tailboard on scene AARs.

As for the third type of AAR, some incidents dictate a larger-scale department-wide or even public-facing review. Some of the public-facing AARs have become very advanced as full-scale multimedia productions. There are some great examples out there where organizations have been vulnerable and transparent so others outside the organization might learn from their experiences, such as the Los Angeles Fire Department collaborating with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) to share their Boyd Street experience.

I work within an automatic-aid region where we often use video conferencing platforms to deliver AAR presentations for our large events or when there was a near-miss or are significant lessons to be shared. This allows us to involve as many on-duty crews as possible from multiple departments in the region and still maintain adequate response coverage. We can combine dispatch audio with on-scene video and include maps, floorplans and other relevant information. These highly produced and more scripted AARs are not only a great way to share lessons with members who were not on the primary call but they can also be catalogued for use as a training resource indefinitely. However, without the complementary less-formal AAR activities, such as the post-incident tailboard discussion, the more formal AARs may fall short for members or seem fabricated.

The key takeaway: Go beyond the common free-flowing storytelling opportunity to engage members in a more efficient, structured and predictable information exchange that can either stand alone or complement the future public-facing presentation.

Reasons to embrace the tailboard AAR

There are several reasons to embrace the tailboard version of the AAR – reasons that will help bolster support for the more structured reviews:

  • Perception is reality. It’s an opportunity to get accurate information while it’s fresh, and before stories are created to justify actions.
  • AARs present a great opportunity to gauge the mental and physical status of the team prior to demobilization.
  • The information gathered builds a more accurate future AAR if a more formal version is needed.
  • AARs are an opportunity to reinforce and encourage positive actions and appreciate our people and the challenges they faced in real time.
  • They also serve as an opportunity to fix problems or misunderstandings in real time.
  • The two-way dialogue establishes leader’s intent and builds mutual respect and appreciation for all positions and jobs on the fireground.
  • An AAR demonstrates healthy command presence.

Recommendations for tailboard success

Set your AAR up for success with consistent and clearly communicated ground rules:

  • Allow only honest, respectful and factual communication. Establish a circle of trust.
  • Anyone who wishes to speak shall be encouraged to do so, regardless of rank, and without retribution.
  • Involve as many of the working crews as possible, not just the officers of those crews.
  • Keep it concise – less than 10 minutes if possible.

Additionally, it’s key to have a plan and structure your AAR for success. Orchestrate a structured and predictable conversation. If your organization doesn’t already have a set format, create your own template to stay on track and encourage predictability. If you are a battalion chief, share your template with your officers. If you are a company officer, share it with your crew. If crews know you will be addressing specific expectations after every incident, it can serve as a training tool to guide on scene behaviors and set themselves up for success.

Too often, these tailboards become a creative storytelling exercise with either too many pats on the back or emotional ego-driven finger-pointing. Human nature tells us that some will take every second of the stage time to embellish their superiority and detract from mistakes, while others will be overly humble and shy away from the limelight, often neglecting to share important information or being inappropriately self-deprecating. Having a predictable structure not only keeps the conversation on track and efficient but also keeps it objective. It helps reinforce good behavior while addressing improvement areas – without making it personal.

Some examples of predictable objective items to discuss:

  • Communications: dispatch, response, initial-arrival report and size-up, command transfer, overall IC communications
  • Apparatus placement and fireground discipline
  • Strategy determination and Initial Action Plan (IAP)
  • Rescue considerations and search
  • Exposure considerations
  • Water supply
  • Medical
  • Safety concerns, any injuries
  • Demobilization and event termination plan

Of course, your list will differ based on your specific challenges and how you are resourced. The important thing is that you have a post-event plan before the event occurs.

Tailboard template

Following is an example of the template I use. It can be resized and laminated to fit in a pocket or clipboard. This is a living document in that it is constantly being updated based on needs. The idea is not to read it checkbox-style but rather to use it to guide the conversation so nothing is missed.

  1. Apparatus positioning
  2. IAP and task-level operations
    1. Rescue considerations
    2. Hoseline selection / placement
    3. Flow path considerations
    4. Exposure considerations
  3. Water supply
  4. Communications
    1. IRR and IC transfer, radio discipline
    2. 360
    3. IC Benchmarks
  5. Safety and Medical
    1. Medical / Rehab
    2. Decon / air monitoring
    3. Injuries
  6. Overhaul plan
  7. Challenges / lessons learned

Go beyond simply terminating command

The on-scene tailboard AAR helps us close the loop. The IC should not assume everyone is coming from the same level of understanding, especially when they were operating at the task level. There will inevitably be some within the group who need the information but will not speak up and ask for it. We all know that firefighters without the whole story will fill in the missing pieces. However, a group of unified firefighters will go to great lengths to support one another and the mission.

When we create a safe and predictable atmosphere where everyone has a voice, we decrease anxiety and set the environment up for growth. We also ensure accountability and naturally establish leader’s intent. The incident commander being prepared and structured in their approach to the tailboard AAR does not mean that one person controls or dictates the conversation. Presenting a predictable format and clearly setting the rules of engagement creates an expectation that others not only speak but are comfortable doing so. In fact, if delivered effectively, the incident commander acts as a facilitator and should be talking the least. That incident commander should be taking mental notes and incorporating the information into the future formal AAR, or into future training and development of their team.

Eric Linnenburger is a 24-year member of the Westminster (Colorado) Fire Department, currently serving as interim deputy chief of operations. With the WFD, Linnenburger has served as a firefighter, paramedic, lieutenant, captain and battalion chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in applied science with a business of government specialization from Regis University and an associate degree in fire science technology from Aims Community College.