When to AAR

A discussion with colleagues last week both on and off social media on the development of after-action reports (AARs) for the COVID 19 pandemic identified some thoughtful perspectives. To contextualize, the pandemic is arguably the longest and largest response the world has ever faced. Certainly, no one argues the necessity for organizations to develop AARs, as there have been an abundance of lessons learned that transcend all sectors. It’s thankfully not often we are faced with such a long incident, but in these circumstances, we need to reconsider our traditional ways of doing things, which has generally been to develop an AAR at the conclusion of the incident.

One central aspect of the discussions was about the timing of the AARs. When should we develop an AAR for an incident? I certainly think that with most incidents, we can safely AAR when the incident is complete, particularly given that most incidents don’t last as long as the pandemic has. The difficulty with the pandemic, relative to AARs, is time. The more time goes on, the more we focus on recent concerns and the less we remember of the earlier parts of the response. This likely remains within tolerable limits for an incident that will last several weeks or even up to a few months, but eventually we need to recognize that that longer we go without conducting the after-action process, the more value we lose. Yes, we can recreate a lot with through documentation, but human inputs are critical to the AAR process, and time severely erodes those. Given this, I suggest the ideal practice in prolonged incidents is to develop interim AARs to ensure that chunks of time are being captured.

Another aspect related to this is to determine what measure we are using for the incident. The vast majority of AARs focus mostly on response, not recovery. This is an unfortunate symptom of the response-centric mentality that persists in emergency management. We obviously should be conducting AARs after the response phase, but we also need to remember to conduct them once the recovery phase is substantially complete. Given that recovery often lasts much longer than the response, we certainly shouldn’t wait until recovery is complete to develop a single AAR for the incident, rather we should be developing an AAR, at a minimum, at the substantial completion of response and another at the substantial completion of recovery.

Yet another complication in this discussion is that timing is going to be different for different organizations. I presently have some clients for which the pandemic is much less of a concern operationally as it was a year ago, especially with a vaccinated workforce. So much less of a concern, in fact, that they have largely resumed normal operations, though obviously with the continuation of some precautionary measures. Other organizations, however, are still in a full-blown response; while there are still yet others somewhere in the middle. This means that as we go through time, the pandemic will largely be over for certain organizations and jurisdictions around the world, while others are still consumed by the incident. While the WHO will give the official declaration of the conclusion of the pandemic, it will be over much sooner for a lot of organizations. Organizations should certainly be developing AARs when they feel the incident has substantially ended for them, even though the WHO may not have declared the pandemic to have concluded.

Consider that the main difference between evaluating an exercise and evaluating an incident is that we begin the exercise with the goal of evaluation. As such, evaluation activities are planned and integrated into the exercise, with performance standards identified and staff dedicated to evaluation. While we evaluate our operations for effectiveness during a response and into recovery, we are generally adjusting in real time to this feedback rather than capturing the strengths and opportunities for improvement. Be it during the incident or after, we need to deliberately foster the AAR process to not only capture what was done, but to help chart a path to a more successful future. I’ve been preaching about the value of incident evaluation for several years, and have been thankful to see that FEMA had developed a task book for such.

Given the complexity and duration of the pandemic, I started encouraging organizations to develop interim AARs longer than a year ago, and in fact supported a client in developing their initial response AAR just about a year ago. FEMA smartly assembled an ‘Initial Assessment Report’ of their early response activity through September of 2020, though unfortunately I’ve not seen anything since. There was a question about naming that came up in the discussions I had, suggesting that the term ‘AAR’ should be reserved for after the incident, and a different term used for any other reports. I partially agree. While I think we should still call it what it is – even if it’s done in the midst of an incident, it is still an after-action report – that being an analysis of actions we’ve taken within a defined period of time. Afterall, it’s not called an ‘after incident report’. That said, I do think that any AARs developed during the incident do warrant some clarification, which can incorporate the inclusion of a descriptor such as ‘interim’ or ‘phase 1, 2, 3, etc’, or whatever is most suitable. I don’t think we need anything standardized so long as it’s fairly self-explanatory.

Have you already conducted an AAR for the pandemic? Do you expect to do another?

© 2021 Tim Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

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