Learning From Experience: How to Create and Use an After Action Report
Whether you are running drills or responding to an event, clear documentation is key to creating an improvement plan that prepares you for future incidents. In this article, we discuss the importance of reflecting on emergency events and how to improve your emergency response with an After Action Report.
When faced with an emergency—be it a natural disaster, act of violence, or significant outage—you can only act with the resources and plans you have in place. There is rarely time to learn a new technology or prepare a new response strategy in the thick of a crisis. So it’s always best to prepare as much as possible beforehand to avoid unnecessary challenges.
Running drills and tabletop exercises to simulate a crisis is a great way to drive active participation in your response plans. And when you do conduct these training exercises, you want to make sure that key personnel learns from the experience, that your processes encourage information sharing, and that you capture areas of improvement so that your organization is better prepared for the next event or incident.
The best way to make sure you learn from drills and emergency events alike is to create an After Action Report. This report will detail the events of the drill or incident itself, how your business responded, what went well or poorly, and then lay out an action plan for improving your preparedness and response for next time.
What Is an After Action Report (AAR)?
An After Action Report is a strategic document used by internal stakeholders to summarize observations and key takeaways following a drill or an actual event that impacts the business. It lays out vital details such as how the exercise went, what went well, areas for improvement, and suggests a concrete plan for improving the response should another similar incident occur. Running practice drills and creating an After Action Report will allow your organization to identify gaps in your response plans, learn from mistakes or oversights, and be better prepared before you are in the midst of an actual emergency.
These reports usually entail a meeting and discussion about the drill. This is very similar to the After Action Review process, which also details an event and discusses the response. However, where reviews are usually kept to just a meeting—either formal or informal—and discussion, an After Action Report entails an actual document put together that breaks down action items and response plans.
These reports were initially used in the military to analyze events and adjust responses after training exercises and battle engagements. The government later adopted these reports as the primary way to deliver feedback, and they’ve since become a standard review process in the U.S. Army.
Today, After Action Reports are used commonly in many organizations, primarily by safety and business continuity professionals. They are an essential tool used to reflect on preparedness drills and support emergency management by ensuring that the business is ready and has learned from past mistakes before an emergency occurs.
Why After Action Reports Should be Standard Protocol
Nearly every business will experience an emergency or unplanned event at some point that impacts employee safety or the bottom line, which is why emergency preparedness and business continuity are foundational components of organizational resilience planning. By practicing your response before you need it, you set yourself up for significantly lower impact and even some level of emergency prevention, depending on the event. And when you practice and reflect on your actions, you can stop yourself from making the same mistakes over and over.
The benefits of an After Action Report, compared to a more informal postmortem or tabletop exercise, is that the AAR process goes beyond general reflection and includes a very tactical plan for how to prepare your business for action the next time. These action items should list specific responsible parties and due dates so that they are simple to follow through on and provide a thorough look at what should change.
These reports can also be maintained and updated over the course of several drills and events so that you can find trends. If you see the same problems coming up repeatedly, you know you need to pay special attention to improving that aspect of your response plan.
How to Write an After Action Report
When you’re ready to write your report, you’ll want to follow a few preparation steps before meeting with your stakeholders. Then, during the meeting, you will go through four steps to review the event, writing down your observations as you go. And finally, you will list out the specific action items along with who is responsible for them. Below, we will walk you through each step.
Preparing for your After Action Report meeting
1. Establish the intent of the report
Before you start answering questions, you need to know what you want the end goal to be. Are you trying to prevent this type of incident from happening again? Are you trying to understand the cause of a misstep or breakdown in process? Are you trying to quantify how much time was required so you can accelerate response times in the future? Knowing what you hope to accomplish will help you give more impactful answers in your report.
2. Identify who should be involved
A comprehensive After Action Report requires involving all critical stakeholders in the conversation. So, before you set your discussion meeting, think through who needs to be a part of the report creation process. Consider which departments and personnel were impacted by the incident or involved in executing the response plan. Who was involved in decision-making? Who played a role in providing data or evidence to understand the location, scale, and impact of the event? Suppose you played a key role in executing the emergency response plan. In that case, you might also invite an external facilitator to moderate the discussion and ensure your inputs are captured in the After Action Report.
3. Determine logistics (when and how to have the discussion)
Meeting logistics is a critical yet often overlooked component of developing After Action Reports. This step is especially important if your business is a remote or hybrid work environment. For some businesses, an in-person meeting will facilitate the best conversation. For others, virtual meetings can be just as effective. Regardless of meeting format or location, be sure to block out ample time to allow all stakeholders to go through the drill or incident thoroughly, ask probing questions to identify the root cause of issues, and document lessons learned before adjourning.
4. Set Ground Rules
When discussing critical events—particularly incidents that impacted personal safety or caused prolonged disruptions—it’s vital to have ground rules in place that facilitate an open and honest discussion. A few examples might include setting the expectation that:
- All answers will be taken seriously
- Participants should be honest and respectful
- All quotes will be kept anonymous
- No ideas should be discounted or shut down without posing alternative solutions.
You should document and distribute these rules to all participants involved in the discussion, and go through them before starting the meeting.
Building your AAR
Once you are ready, schedule time for your retrospective meeting with all team members involved in executing the response plan and discuss each of the four components below:
The first thing you should go through is the post-incident recap. In this stage, you want to discuss what was expected from your team leader and project team and the drill (or if you are analyzing an emergency event itself, what you expected to happen in this kind of scenario). Ask questions like what resources you had available, whether you could predict this event beforehand, and anything else you need to measure how ready you were.
The second thing you need to go through is what actually happened. Go into detail about the events of the drill, who responded, what/when events occurred, etc. Make sure that everyone in the meeting has an opportunity to share their experience.
The third step is to go through the good elements of your response. Was there one employee who went above and beyond? Was there one particularly helpful piece of technology? Find the things that went well so that you can replicate or expand that response for the future.
The fourth step is to go through the elements that did not meet expectations or standards for success. These may be breakdowns in communication or even problems in the response strategy itself. Be sure to discuss these areas for improvement without assigning blame or attacking any of the stakeholders or employees. With this After Action Report, you will be helping to make sure these issues don’t come up again.
Once you have all of your observations and conclusions from these four elements of the report, you’ll want to compile a list of action items and assign each one to a responsible party. These items can be as simple as updating documents or as vital as setting up an emergency communication system. These corrective actions should support the measures discussed in the incident analysis section and prevent future failures from the “improvement areas” section.
Following up on your report
Even after putting in all the work to create the report, you can’t assume everything will be done according to plan. Be sure to track progress on the changes and check in frequently with the responsible parties.
Additionally, you should continue to run regular drills and iterate on your After Action Reports over many trial runs to make sure that your plans are up to snuff. Keeping on top of your report’s follow-up means you’ll be significantly more prepared if an event does occur or occurs again.
It can be easy to write off emergency events as accidents or one-offs—something that probably won’t affect your business moving forward. But without a concrete emergency preparedness and response plan, you will likely be caught off guard and suffer business-altering repercussions from an emergency. When you take the time to practice, reflect, and respond ahead of time, you’ll develop better strategies and prepare resources for those moments when you need to act fast.