The Fire Scene: After-Action Reports: Analyzing Your Performance

In my travels across the country visiting firefighters, I often hear the stories about a recent dramatic fire or emergency that the local company handled. Usually, several people are there, firefighters and officers who operated at the scene, and they...


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In my travels across the country visiting firefighters, I often hear the stories about a recent dramatic fire or emergency that the local company handled. Usually, several people are there, firefighters and officers who operated at the scene, and they leave out no details. Then I ask, “Do you have an ‘after-action’ report?” And I hear, “A what?”

Let’s take a look at the after-action report and what it can do for your department.

No matter where you go, you will hear firefighters saying that “fires are down” or “we don’t go to fires anymore.” Although that’s really not true, the perception is that we are responding to too few fires. Whether or not you feel this way, the after-action report can have a dramatic, positive effect on your firefighters and your department. I tell officers all the time that they should never operate at a structural fire or other serious emergency without stopping before they head back to the firehouse and going over what they did, what they didn’t do and how the operation went.

Reviewing operations

Say your department responds to and operates at a serious fire in an apartment house on Main Street. The fire started in the kitchen on the third floor and extended to several other rooms before it was extinguished. Several occupants were rescued by the ladder company and mutual aid companies were used to relieve the first-arriving companies. So when do you, the incident commander, start thinking about an after-action report? The answer is before you send any company home, even a company that arrived and relieved the first engine on the hoseline to wash down.

There are two steps to the after-action-report process. The first is the gathering of information and the second is the review of the event. The gathering of information at a serious fire or emergency can be conducted in several ways. The first, fastest and simplest is to make printed after-action-report forms available in each chief’s vehicles or even on each apparatus. The form should be a simple one-page, question-and-answer format.

As the operation is winding down, the incident commander announces that the officer of each unit should report to the command post, receive the form and fill it out right there. The information being compiled can include company number, department, what alarm you responded on, arrival time, area of operations, supervised by what chief or officer, any notable special activities or conditions, any people removed or rescued, etc. You can ask for any information that you want to include in the report. These reports can then be looked at by the incident commander and a basic overview of the operation begins to take shape. This report can then be used at a gathering of the chiefs and company officers who operated at the scene. You don’t want to wait too long to bring everyone together for this training session because the details of the operation can become diminished or confused.

The second step in this process is the gathering of the officers. Obviously, every officer who responded is invited to attend, including those from mutual aid companies. The primary goal of this meeting is to discover, discuss and take a second look at all of the activities that unfolded at the scene.

Operations that went well should be talked about, but it is more important to discuss what didn’t go so well or as planned. This may be the hardest part of the day. It’s not easy telling a seasoned captain that his company did not perform well or successfully. As hard as that may be, it is important to do just that. Each and every aspect of the operation needs to be discussed. Certainly, the tone of the conversation should always be positive and the entire process should be used as a training tool. Again, the primary reason for the after-action report is to improve the future performance of your firefighters, officers, companies and the department. Issues that include mutual aid departments, other agencies and even the dispatchers can and should be discussed and those people should be invited to participate.

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