Free Training, Valuable Lessons Come From Debriefings

How often do you spend some time talking about training evolutions and calls at their conclusion? Sometimes it's as simple as a tailboard talk or just sitting in rehab talking afterwards. This can be productive, but do people get as much out of these impromptu chats as they would from a debriefing session? How does your department provide feedback for calls and training to assist in assessing its effectiveness? The easiest and most inexpensive way to provide this important component is debriefing.

Before we discuss the benefit of debriefing there has to be an understanding of what it is. Debriefing refers to the conversational sessions that revolve around the sharing and examining of information after a specific event has taken place. These events can range from the run of the mill structure fire to the motor vehicle accident with entrapment. The important thing to remember is that the size and type of incident should not dictate the need for debriefing. Many departments have a standard operating guidelines (SOG) in place to provide a guide for when debriefing will occur. Anyone can call for a debriefing for any number of reasons. The incident commander can request it for items related to operations, the safety officer for risk and safety issues, or any member of the company or crew to get a better understanding of any incident aspect. The same applies to any post training exercise.

Successful debriefings must have ground rules that may, at times, be hard for firefighters to follow. These rules must be followed to provide an atmosphere of communication that can lead to learning and behavioral change. These rules are:

  1. Everyone, firefighters and officers alike, must leave their feelings at the door. You cannot allow emotion to drive your discussion. Officers do not use this as an avenue to accuse people or state your opinion as gospel. Firefighters don't take it personal, all this is simply a means to look at how things were done and seek to understand was it done the best way not point a finger.
  2. There must be a facilitator to keep things moving. Who fills this role will often be dictated by the size and type of incident. If it is a small debriefing the company officer can facilitate the discussion at the same time he participates. If this is a large scale or complex incident you may want to use a chief officer or outside person that was not directly involved. The debriefings that are held after training can be facilitated by the training staff, company officer or any designated person. Following training exercises, assign different people to fill the role as facilitator and this will allow folks to get comfortable with the process as well as build communication skills.
  3. Allow everyone to talk. Give everyone involved the opportunity to answer questions and state opinions. Even if someone is incorrect let them be heard as it is part of learning. Be respectful as you talk; no screaming and yelling.
  4. Do not go on defense. If someone questions something you did, don't automatically assume they are saying you did it wrong. There is no need to start pleading a case as to why you are right, state your opinion and let the discussion move. The facilitator should pick up on this defense and defuse it quickly in the interest of the discussion.
  5. Don't spend all your time on the negative. Many times people leave a debriefing feeling beat up. This happens because the entire time is spent on what went wrong. Spend some time on what was right, point out the areas where personnel preformed correctly and did strong work.

Let's look at some basic tactics for debriefing. If you develop an agenda to serve as a guide it will keep it moving. It doesn't have to be written or copied and passed out and if the discussion takes you in a different productive direction,  so be it. In order to keep your discussion straightforward use these questions for each identified issue:

  • What happened?
  • How did it happen?
  • What could be done different to improve the situation?

I like to use the following agenda as a guide. This same one can be found in many of our trade magizines.

  • Good observations: What was done right that can be done again in the same situation? This will set a positive tone for the session.
  • Operational issues: This is the area that will take up most of your time as firefighters tend to lump all problems into operational issues. Examples of items for discussion here are, apparatus placement, resource management, timeliness, and command issues. There are many other items that can go in this area as well.
  • Safety issues: What problems with safety can be identified? What risk was taken that may need reevaluation?
  • Additional discussion: After all these areas have been discussed members may have thought of additional information to discuss.
  • Wrap it up: Review the good points and the areas of consensus for needed improvement. Last review the department SOP/SOG for that particular incident.

Remember this type of discussion can be a cheap, valuable tool to teach, train and change behavior. It will give all members an opportunity to be heard and give input. It will build trust at the company level and fosters an environment of communication. Use this for response and for training as often as possible you will see improvement and even a positive impact on morale.