Want to get better and be safer? Debrief!
If we don’t look critically at incidents that go poorly, we fail to learn, we fail to get better, and we will continue to lose lives needlessly
I’m hesitant to start an article with a political reference because inevitably I risk losing at least some of the audience. But a current event is such a powerful example about the topic about which I write today that I believe the benefit outweighs all other considerations.
In a Congressional hearing on the Benghazi murders, a well-known politician — I won’t name the politician, but I’m confident that most readers know who this is — made the now-infamous statement, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
I was livid. The statement completely discounts the value of conducting a Debrief. Debriefs and After-Action Reports are incredibly powerful, life-saving tools. Through careful examination of the incidents in which we find ourselves, we get better at what we do!
A Way of Doing Business
If something really bad happens, we should pick it apart, identify mistakes made, and develop practices to ensure it doesn’t happen again. It is important to honor those who gave their lives by acknowledging errors, making improvements, and saving lives in the future. If we fail to look critically at these incidents, we fail to learn, we fail to get better, and we will continue to lose lives needlessly.
A Debrief should not be done only after a crisis. A Debrief should be a habit — a constant, continuing way of doing business. I’m shocked how many SWAT teams don’t do a Debrief after every operation.
If we choose not to take a critical look at our performance, then we are saying that either our egos are too fragile to accept constructive, potentially life-saving criticism or that we think everything we do is perfect. I remember doing basic two-man entries all day long on SWAT. And you know what? I never did it perfectly. Sometimes we did it really well, other times less so.
But never perfectly.
Doing a Debrief Correctly
Years ago I had a conversation with a friend who was part of a task force. He told me about an A&D arrest they made. They were all bunched up on the front porch, they finally made entry, they blasted past open doors in the house, and eventually located and arrested the bad guy in a back bedroom.
They later learned that the subject — armed with an AR — was watching all of them on the porch and could have easily shot and killed many of them. The subject’s friend was in one of the bedrooms they blew past. He could have stepped out in the hallway and shot half the team in the back.
The bad guys chose not to, and the good guys lived. I told my friend that I hoped all of that came out in the Debrief so they can do it more safely next time.
The response: “No, the team leader is not the type of guy to accept feedback.”
Some teams have what they call a Debrief, but it really isn’t.
If you grab a beer after the arrest, slap each other on the back, and talk about how great you are: that’s not a Debrief.
A Debrief is a detailed review of everything that was done with an eye for how to do it better. It may concern equipment that was needed but was not there, communications that could be improved, coordination with other units, and each individual’s step-by-step actions.
The best teams have productive Debriefs in which members call out their own mistakes or areas for improvement. It’s not a finger-pointing blame-game. It’s a systematic approach to getting better each time.
The Solo-Officer Debrief
Debriefs are not just for tactical teams. They’re for everyone in all aspects of life. As an individual officer, you can have a one-man/one-woman Debrief after every encounter.
What could I have done better? How could I have done that more safely? If the bad guy really wanted to hurt me, could he?
Complacency is our primary enemy. Please don’t fall victim to it. Train, be open to constructive criticism (from yourself and others), and win.