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After-action reviews: Because the ‘perfect fire’ doesn’t exist

Departments that regularly conduct AARs are well-positioned to streamline their performance and increase their margin of safety

DFD fire 4.jpg

Photo/Brad French

Do you remember the fire when everything went perfect? The one where you wouldn’t do a single thing differently if you had the chance to do it over again? Remember that one? Yeah, me neither.

Structural firefighting operations and various other types of complex and dynamic emergency incidents are rarely completed in a manner that eliminates any room for improvement. Think about it. There really are no “perfect fires.” That’s not a bad thing, and it’s certainly not an indictment on our industry’s skill level or dedication. It simply means that getting everything exactly right, every single time, in the exceedingly dynamic environment in which we operate is just a really tough task.

AAR survey results

One of the most productive opportunities we have as a fire service is to remain humble and self-reflective following significant incidents. We should certainly celebrate the positive outcomes and acknowledge the smart choices that were made in a high-stress, time-pressured context. But we’re doing no one any good if we gloss over or ignore the minor (sometimes even major) tactical operations that could have been handled in a safer or more efficient manner.

Departments that regularly conduct after-action reviews (AAR) are well-positioned to streamline their performance on emergency incidents and increase their margin of operational safety. The format in which these reviews are performed, however, varies widely from department to department. Unfortunately, some organizations don’t engage in the AAR process at all.

FireRescue1 surveyed thousands of firefighters from across the country for the inaugural “What Firefighters Want” survey, and the results surrounding AAR were surprising. One-third of respondents noted that AAR are conducted in their organizations rarely or never. And while it’s possible that some of the survey respondents may not perform reviews often due to a low volume of incidents, the more likely scenario is that many departments simply don’t buy in to the critical nature of the AAR concept. This theory is supported by the many survey respondents who called for more AARs.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the 100+ AAR-focused responses:

  • “AARs after EVERY incident, shared with the troops; strong action taken when willfully negligent, derelict, or dangerous actions are taken.”
  • “AAR is a crucial step in changing the fire ground ops. Everyone has to know what went right/wrong to make the appropriate changes.”
  • “Honest AARs. Be Blunt. Stop worrying about feelings and everyone needs to be OK with being vulnerable to their mistakes so we all collectively learn and improve.”
  • “An open, 360-degree “tailboard talk” after each incident with a follow-up AAR as needed.”
  • “After-action reviews to facilitate learning of less experienced members.”
  • “More after-action reviews, or if they do have them invite the volunteers more.”

If your department needs help focusing on AARs, what can you do to turn the tide?

When to conduct AARs of any type

An after-action review can encompass any type of post-incident reflection, both formal and informal, that objectively evaluates performance and results in a plan for improvement. Even complex training events can sometimes elicit an AAR, although most revolve around incident mitigation.

An effective way to get the AAR concept off the ground is to look around and see what other departments are doing. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Most departments that regularly conduct AAR will have some type of policy that prescribes what level of detail and formality is required for various categories of incidents.

DFD fire 4.jpg

Most departments that regularly conduct AAR will have some type of policy that prescribes what level of detail and formality is required for various categories of incidents.

Photo/Brad French

Higher-volume responses, such as automatic fire alarm activations or BLS medical responses, are likely to require no AAR whatsoever.

A small fire (vehicle fire, etc.) or ALS medical incident may simply elicit some conversation amongst the crew on the way back from the incident about what went smoothly and if any notable safety concerns were observed by any crewmembers.

A working structure fire may trigger a post-incident “tailboard chat” among the incident commander and the company officers before everyone begins to pick up to leave. While maybe not a “formal” AAR, these quick talks can reinforce expectations, make note of the efficiency of various tactical operations, and provide an opportunity for the less-experienced officers to ask questions and get feedback.

Multi-alarm fires, complex technical rescue operations, civilian fire fatalities or a mayday event should prompt a formal AAR process. In these situations, a committee may be formed to investigate the incident operations and provide a formal report with recommendations. Elements to be examined may include:

  • Dispatch audio/transcripts
  • Post-incident photographs/videos taken to document the scene
  • Dash cam/helmet cam footage
  • Incident reports and narratives from those involved
  • Any physical evidence/objects from the scene (damaged PPE, etc.)
  • Injury reports
  • Training records

In the event of a catastrophic firefighter injury or a confirmed line-of-duty death (LODD), ICs and senior staff members need to remain cognizant of the need to preserve the scene for comprehensive investigative procedures. Law enforcement, fire investigators, and various state and federal agencies are all likely to have a need to assess the scene in the hours and days following such an event.

Some fire departments have produced extraordinarily detailed and comprehensive internal reports following a serious injury or LODD in their organization. A best practice for these expansive investigative documents is to establish a cross-sectional committee that involves senior internal leadership, the labor union (if applicable), external non-biased subject-matter experts, and representatives from other interest groups, such as volunteer associations or dispatch.

The issue of photography and/or videography by departmental personnel on an active scene has been a frequently debated topic in the fire service. While legal considerations, internal policy, record-keeping and logistics will all be determining factors in whether a department allows such activity, there is no denying that helmet camera or dash camera footage from an active fireground is invaluable for training and AAR purposes. This footage, particularly when paired with incident audio recordings, can provide a vivid picture of tactical operations that serves as context for myriad uses within the department and community. Some departments have taken an aggressive approach to “telling their story” on social media and other public forums to notable success and positive feedback. Keep in mind, though, that cameras capture both the good and the bad, and departments must be cognizant of laws on record keeping and retention.

A healthy part of organizational culture

AARs can range from simple, informal discussions all the way to comprehensive reports produced by large committees. Regardless of the type, the key is to establish a culture of self-reflection and self-improvement within the organization. It may be an informal discussion amongst the crew on the way back from an incident or an afternoon spent quietly studying an investigation report for an LODD. Learning from our own experiences, as well as vicariously learning from others, is a healthy part of any organizational culture.

Brad French is a captain in the Dayton (Ohio) Fire Department. He is a 20-year member of the fire service, and holds degrees in fire science and fire administration. French is a former member of the Board of Directors for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), serves on the technical committees for NFPA 1700 and 1402, and is a member of the technical panel for the UL-FSRI Coordinated Fire Attack study.

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