How to Create and Use an After-Action Report [+ Template]
Things don’t always go as planned, but even in failure lies opportunity. Learn how to use an after-action report to improve your emergency response plans and ensure your team is prepared for any crisis.
When faced with an emergency—be it a natural disaster, act of violence, or significant outage—you’ll be acting with the resources and plans you have in place at the time. 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 are great ways to drive active participation in your response plans. And when you do conduct these training exercises, make sure key personnel learn from the experience, your processes encourage information sharing, and you capture areas of improvement so your organization is better prepared for the next event or incident.
You don’t ever want to make the same mistake twice when lives and business continuity are at stake. Capture lessons learned from drills and emergency events alike with 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.
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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. The exercise objectives are to ascertain vital details such as how the event went, what went well, and areas for improvement, and it 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 meeting with stakeholders to discuss and solicit feedback about the drill or exercise. 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 serves as the document of record that breaks down action items and improvement plans.
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.
Learn a step-by-step framework for developing an after action report to ensure your organization is prepared for any emergency scenario.
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 overview, 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 you can track 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 be clear on the end goal. 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 the 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 must involve 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? Was there a point of contact? 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 the number of 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 to discuss the building blocks of an AAR. The four parts of an after-action report/improvement plan are:
- Post-incident recap
- Incident review
- Incident analysis
- Potential improvements
1. Post-incident recap — In this scenario, what was expected?
The first thing you should go through is the post-incident recap. In this stage, you’ll discuss what was expected from your team leader and project team and the drill—or if you are analyzing an emergency event itself, you’ll discuss 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.
2. Incident review — What actually occurred?
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 everyone in the meeting has an opportunity to share their experience.
3. Incident analysis — What went well, and why?
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.
4. Potential improvements — What can be improved, and how?
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 participating organizations. With this after-action report, you will be helping to ensure these issues don’t come up again.
Once you have collected all of your observations and conclusions from these four elements of the report, 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 and prevent future failures.
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.
After-Action Report Examples
Diverse organizations have found success with after-action reports, and many of these organizational templates are available online for free. Be advised that relying on someone else’s plan might not work for your company, but the following examples can offer inspiration and ideas for your own format.
|AlertMedia’s simple after-action report template|
|Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s template|
|Public Health Foundation’s guide and examples|
|An example after-action report from U.S. Department of Homeland Security|
Looking Inward, Facing Outward
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 standard way to process and understand why these incidents happen, you’ll be less likely to catch those same problems the next time. When you take the time to reflect, analyze, and improve, you’ll develop better strategies and prepare resources for those moments when you need to act fast and face the disruptions the world throws at you.