AARs: Why Do We Do Them?

Photo by Kari Greer.

[This article by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center’s (LLC) Analyst Travis Dotson was originally featured in the Fall 2013 issue of Two More Chains.]

By Travis Dotson

Have you ever been through an After Action Review that was a waste of time? Have you been to the AAR where you blaze through the process:

  • “What was the plan?” – To mop up.
  • “What actually happened?We mopped up.
  • “Why did it happen?” – Because that was the plan.
  • “What can we do better next time?” – Mop up more.

Or experienced the AAR where the person “facilitating” talks the whole time and tells everyone their view of the situation? Or the one where it’s all complaints and finger-pointing and everyone leaves angry? How about the one where you talk about everything but what really needs to be talked about (the dance around the issues AAR)? Or what about the most frustrating one? That would be the AAR where really good dialogue and ideas are generated—but on the next operation, nothing has changed.

Yes, we have all been to those AARs—too many times. Why?

How have we taken this awesome tool and run it into the ground? Maybe that is exactly what it’s like. A new hand tool that gets overused in the wrong fuel type because it’s new. And we don’t sharpen it and it gets dull and even less useful—even when it’s the right tool for the job.

Bear with me here, I’m going to run with this tool analogy.

AAR: Tool Analogy

Think about cache tools and specialty tools. The cache tools are really good for what they are. They serve their purpose, they’re good to learn with and we can always make do with them. But, as you dig more line and mop-up more ground, you begin to figure out how to customize tools to be more efficient. That’s when we start building super Ps and pounders out of standard pulaskis, vipers out of McLeods, rhinos out of shovels, and on and on and on.

Even if you have a whole variety of specialty tools, if you don’t know what the end state of the mission is, you will likely misuse the tool. Are you trying to hold surface fire in needle cast or crown fire through manzanita on steep slopes? You have to know what you are trying to accomplish to choose the right tool and tactics.

But put any tool—even the right tool in the right situation—in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it, or even what it’s designed for . . .  Well, we have all seen that: Wasted Effort.

What are AARs Designed For?

This is the situation I think we are in with AARs. We have forgotten what they are designed for. So, what are they designed for? Check out the video below regarding the history of AARs.

The AAR is about tomorrow’s shift (or whenever the next operation is). Did you get that? Not today:  TOMORROW. Yes, you need to talk about today, but it’s just the context for what improvements will be implemented in the future.

I have been to way too many AARs where this element is not provided the focus it deserves – or it is completely left out! When there is no plan to implement the discovered improvements, what’s the point?

Improve the Next Operation

When AARs first made their way into the wildland fire service we were so excited about the concept, we went wild with it.

We pushed AARs hard and started doing them after every operational period. Just getting together and talking after every shift was so new it made us question: “Why are we doing this?”

Asking that question gets us to the intent: Improve the next operation. While we have gotten really good at making AARs part of the daily routine, some of us have stopped asking the question: “Why are we doing this?”

For lots of folks it has become just one of the many things you have to do at the end of shift—water-up, clean and sharpen the saw, toss your lunch trash, write down your hours, AAR. That’s a good thing, but not if we aren’t getting anything out of it.

Photo by Kari Greer.

 Customize the Format

OK, back to the tool analogy.

Remember the part about learning with the cache tools and then figuring out exactly what you need and building customized tools to be more efficient? We are at that point with the standard AAR format. We know how to use the format in the IRPG, but we use AARs in so many different situations, we need to customize the format to suit a variety of conditions.

Think about it. With a little experience, you roll up to a fire, you look at the conditions and what you are being asked to do. You quickly decide the tool compliment you need to get the job done. Is it wet line and a torch (short grass with a steady wind)? Or, is it pick-tools and rakes (needle cast in the rocks)? The point is, you don’t always use the same tools. To be efficient, you use the right tool for the conditions. Why should AARs be any different?

Know the intent and customize the format to your needs. The intent part is easy. Get some dialogue going about today to improve the next operation—including what worked well. The method you use to get there should be adjusted to fit the circumstances. Just like your tool selection.

Bottom Line:

  • Know why you’re doing an AAR (improve the next operation).
  • Identify concrete actions (tag the mix vs. straight gas cans); consider assigning the task.
  • During briefing (the next operation) reference points from the previous AAR.
  • Have different formats for different circumstances (specialty tools).
  • Practice all your formats (use Tactical Decision Games/Sand Table Exercises to practice).

Remember you don’t have to be leading the AAR or briefing to influence it, just ask the right questions.

One thought on “AARs: Why Do We Do Them?

  1. I have burned occaisionally with the Piedmont Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. At their AARs they assign a note taker. These notes are placed in a file with the burn plan and the next time they are planning to burn that unit the notes are reviewed and incorporated into the operational plan.

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