Formalizing the AAR Process


David Murphy, a 20-year fire service veteran and retired assistant chief with the Richmond (Ky.) Fire Department (RFD), has a lot to say on the topic of after-action reviews (AARs). And rightly so. Whether it’s in the apparatus bay, in the rig on the way home or at the kitchen table, AARs, post-incident critiques, back-step conversation, or whatever your department calls them, are invaluable to the safety, survival—and success—of firefighters. FireRescue had the chance to catch up with Chief Murphy prior to the class he’s presenting at Fire-Rescue International this year with his associate and co-author, Dr. Cliff Scott. The class is entitled “Learning From Our Mistakes: How to Conduct an Effective After-Action Review (AAR).”

Learning Through Experience
Chief Murphy has developed a lot of passion on the topic of AARs through his years as both an associate professor in the Fire Safety Engineering Technology program at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, but also with the RFD, seeing firsthand how a simple conversation can pull together different people with very different opinions. “One of our shift officers used to make us do this,” he recalls. “Any time we pulled a line or any time we had something out of the norm, we’d go critique it. Even if it was 3 in the morning, we’d go upstairs and do a critique of the incident while it was still fresh in our minds. And I was amazed that everyone—people who couldn’t agree on the time of day—would come together and make decisions during these discussions.”

The department learned not only how to discuss an incident, they also learned the many variables involved in AARs and that everyone’s perspective was important. “Everyone got a chance to speak,” he says. “[The incident commander would ask] ‘well, you saw something—what was it?’ It really amazed me that you could get a bunch of knotheads to move in the same direction; everyone came together for the common good. And it’s the same way in every department.”

Dr. Scott, assistant professor of Organizational Science and Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, came to understand the subject from a completely different point of view. “I was a new doctoral student in organizational communication; 9/11 occurred during my first semester,” he recalls. “Ironically, we were looking at how people in high-risk professions managed their emotions, and we did a project on first responders.”

That project became the start of Dr. Scott’s long association with the fire service and its culture. He has since put in hundreds of hours in ride-alongs with varying departments, researching how firefighters interact and communicate—and he’s seen good and bad examples of both. After one particular fire that didn’t go well, the battalion chief noted that they were going to conduct an AAR, but it wasn’t an incident review or critique so much as it was “the biggest bunch of back slapping,” Dr. Scott says. “There was no discussion of what went wrong, or more importantly, what almost went wrong. In fact, as they were talking, the house caught fire again. If the discussion had been handled well, it could have been a huge learning experience.”

Formal AAR Basics
An AAR is a simple discussion, but it involves many key elements when done correctly. The discussion needs to answer three main questions according to Chief Murphy: What’d we do right, what’d we do wrong, and what could we have done better?

But in order get the right answers to those questions, an AAR must be approached correctly. It must involve the traditional interrogative questions of who, what, when and where. Chief Murphy and Dr. Scott believe these elements are simple, but not always understood or executed properly. Here is a breakdown of each:

  • Who should lead the AAR critique? In most cases, the incident commander, but really, it can be anyone who was at the incident and has the leadership qualities necessary to properly conduct and maintain control of the meeting.
  • Who should participate in the AAR? Everyone who was present at the incident should be encouraged to speak up. The moderator should go around the room and call on every person present at the scene for their input.  
  • What types of incidents should be subject to a formal AAR? Every structure fire and any other incident that’s deemed “non-routine.”
  • What is the correct AAR format? First, all in attendance must feel that they are free to contribute to the discussion without fear of retribution. The AAR should begin with a simple diagram drawn on a board to represent the incident scene. The first-arriving company should then explain apparatus placement and their subsequent actions, followed by the second-arriving, third-arriving and so on.
  • When is the best time to complete an AAR? As soon as possible, immediately after the incident is most desirable. If this is not possible, the next shift would probably be the next best option.  
  • Where should the AAR be held? Your training center or meeting room may be the best place to conduct an AAR. While some AARs tend to be informal and take place around the rear step or the kitchen table, more in-depth, formal AARs will be more productive in a classroom setting.

Keys to Success
Of course, when you put several people with varying perspectives and opinions in one room together, you may encounter a few disagreements or issues—what Chief Murphy calls “the human side” of communication. “The pride, the ego, a lack of education and a lack of experience can all undermine an AAR,” Chief Murphy explains. “But the greatest impediment to AARs is the ego. And it’s usually the incident commander’s ego—not always, but usually; whoever is in control.”

Control of an AAR discussion is key to its success. Not only are egos an impediment, but if the discussion leader isn’t capable of controlling the tempers, fault-finding and potential arguments, the meeting is all but useless. “There should be no pointing fingers; a lot of people use AARs to find fault and accuse people, but we don’t have 20/20 hindsight,” Chief Murphy says. “Somewhere in the United States, a company is going to roll up to a serious incident, and they’re not going to stand there and scratch their heads. They’re going to do something; they’re going to think on their feet. We’d all like to go back and change things, but we can’t, so we try to change the way we do things by learning from our mistakes—but that requires us to have good leadership. And there’s no more effective tool out there for leaders than the AAR.”

Honesty is also key to a successful discussion. Without it, firefighters may never learn from their mistakes, or even realize that they’re making mistakes. “I guess a lot of people don’t want to confront things,” Chief Murphy says, “but we must confront them if we want to make things better, and we must simply be taught how to do this correctly if we want to reap the full benefit.  

“And there needs to be a formal training program that teaches people how to do it,” Chief Murphy adds. “Because if you ask people if they do them, they say ‘sort of’, but if you ask if they’ve been trained on it, they say no.”

Another key: good communication, which isn’t always easy, particularly when different generations of firefighters don’t see eye to eye when determining how to solve a problem or correct a mistake. “Just a handful of people at the top make all the rules, but how long has it been since the average chief rode in a truck?” Chief Murphy asks. “Before I retired, we bought a new engine, but we were looking for ways to trim the budget. So the chief said, ‘We can cut the air conditioner out of the vehicle.’ He didn’t think we needed one because he grew up riding the tailboard. But I said, ‘it’s hot sittin’ in the doghouse; we gotta cut something else,’ and everyone else agreed with me. Everyone’s perspective is different.”

“And I think this younger generation’s experience is very different,” he continues. “At one time, if you questioned your leader in the fire service, they’d point to their badge and say ‘because I told you so.’ And then you may be waxing trucks at midnight. But nowadays, that’s changed. If you see something wrong, you need to say something. The fire service is becoming more dangerous every day, and the younger generation is inheriting a more dangerous world.”

What to Avoid
Chief Murphy is quick to point out, though, that while honest, open communication is helpful, there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed during an AAR. Personal dislikes and personal agendas must be dealt with and/or put aside. “You’ll see people sitting in a room together that don’t like each other, and when you see the tempers flare and the personal conflict, the IC or whoever is in control, has to be the one to stop it,” Chief Murphy says. “The IC needs to have the perspective of, ‘I either ordered it or allowed it, so if you’re angry, that’s fine, but turn it into something positive.’”

What firefighters must remember, Murphy explains, is that they’re not perfect; they’re not robots. Mistakes will inevitably be made, so rather than dwelling on them, crews need to “figure out where the dominoes didn’t fall correctly and then fix the dominoes,” he says. “But it’s hard to do, because if someone is attacking you, your first reaction is to defend yourself. If someone is really angry, the IC will need to ask the person if they can be civil during the discussion, and if not, ask them to sit this one out.”

Make It Better
Just like an AAR discussion, some readers may shake their heads at Chief Murphy’s detailed how-to on AARs, thinking a quick and dirty run-through of what happened will suffice, or maybe nothing at all. But he notes that any professional firefighter already performs an AAR in their own mind. “If some departments don’t find AARs helpful and stopped doing them, they probably weren’t doing them correctly or they had an improper format or the person who was doing them wasn’t professional,” he says. “But you can do them anywhere; everyone does them in their own mind anyway. So if everyone’s doing that, then you’re going to be better.”

He also warns that incident review is part of the learning process; it will teach younger firefighters what to do and what not to do, and it will allow them to have a hand in shaping their department’s SOPs/SOGs. “I tell my young people that putting on a helmet and getting on fire truck doesn’t make you a firefighter. You need the education, and all that goes with it,” Chief Murphy says. “The one of thing that touches everyone is SOPs/SOGs and training directives. But if the chiefs are the know-it-alls and those with the most experience, and if only a handful of people are deciding what to do, then you’re missing some good opportunities to make your department better. The older people are moving out and the younger people are coming up, so the one way to leave a lasting improvement is to strengthen your SOPs/SOGs, which then guides your training policies. Otherwise, you’ve got three different shifts doing three different things.”

The AAR Book
In the summer of 2006, Chief Murphy and Dr. Scott began a discussion on a plan to improve the AAR process. The result: The two have partnered together on a book about AAR training. “What we envisioned when creating the book is a course that’s outlined by the book,” Chief Murphy explains. “Fire departments can read the book and apply it no matter where they are. People say they already know how to do them, but the majority really doesn’t.”

The two have conducted baseline research with the help of the Charlotte Fire Department (CFD), and they’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. “What we’re learning is that it’s very hit or miss. Departments don’t do AARs on a regular basis; many use them just for major incidents where there is a directive to meet as an entire department or battalion,” Dr. Scott explains. “The understanding there is that ‘we’re going to have one singular narrative about what went wrong and we’re going to force that down the throats of people.’ Most firefighters think those are BS. That’s not what we’re focusing on. We’re focusing on what a single company would perform, what really matters in terms of occupational safety: How do you talk about safety? How do you talk about incidents after the fact? There’s very little research on this.”

Their findings have been so well received, that the CFD has implemented changes into their training based on the information they’ve learned. And although the book deal isn’t finalized, Chief Murphy stresses that it’s not about making money; it’s about improving communication, learning from mistakes and improving fireground safety. “It applies to everyone—paid, career, volunteer, part-time, etc.—and it doesn’t cost anything,” Chief Murphy notes. “We want to have a positive effect on the fire service.”

For more information on AARs, check out these articles by FirefighterNation Online News/Blog Manager Bill Carey: