You’re hot, sweaty and even though you toweled off in an attempt to decontaminate yourself prior to removing your gas mask, sweat with powdered CS munitions from your head has rolled down and gotten into your left eye. What started as a barricade call searching for a felony warrant dope dealer and shooter several hours ago has had you outside this crackhouse in the heat of the day and an hour inside without air conditioning while wearing a gas mask and full kit before you found the suspect hiding in the attic crawlspace. All you want is to get home and pop the top on a cold one. But you and the other operators on your tactical team have stowed team and personal gear and are now gathered in the SWAT room post-incident to conduct a debrief or “after action review” (AAR). So you grab a chair as the team leader starts the debrief.
This is the way the game is played, and regardless of whether you’re hot and tired, debriefs are part of the business, so suck it up and get used to it. There is a lot you and your team can learn from what you’ve done.
Successful teams understand that the entire mission planning, briefing and rehearsal process is a team function. By bringing everyone into the process prior to an operation and getting everyone involved, you ensure a better product. Everyone buys into the operation and they “own it.” Limiting the planning to only a couple operators or team leaders is a sure way to overtax them and possibly make some serious tactical blunders.
If all you do is what you’ve always done, all you’ll get is what you already have. You’ll never improve, nor will your team. One of the ways to improve is to do an honest assessment of your training and operations. Whether you should sustain what works or what does not work is reviewed and sets the stage for all factors of the tactical team business.
AARs or debriefs can be as informal as a team gathered around the back of the equipment truck up to formal, structured reviews. Relevant topics for review are everything from how patrol handled the original call and initiated the tactical team response to how it was concluded and everything in between. This is greatly aided by the notes of the “scribe,” or officer assigned to record incident data for the team commander, as well as notes from the CAD (computer-aided dispatch) system. Pulling everyone together—and make no mistake, everyone involved should be present at the debrief even if only for the parts that are relevant to them—creates a clearer picture of what actually transpired. I’ve been present at Critical Incident Stress Debriefings, another type of debrief that focuses on the mental well-being of officers involved in shootings or other types of critical incidents, when officers who had shot someone were told for the first time by others what transpired before or after the shooting. The look on their faces was astonishment, as they said things like, “So, that’s what happened. I wondered…”
The AAR allows the team leader or commander to complete an accurate written report of what went down, which is vital in the advent of an internal investigation or litigation—sadly too common in today’s SWAT business.
Further, the AAR is designed to pinpoint problem areas or concerns so that the team and its operators learn and grow from mistakes made. There’s an adage: “Seldom does a plan survive first contact.” We know that, but we still must account for why deviations of the plan occurred, which will hopefully allow us to plan better in the future. These changes may be assimilated into policy, TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) or SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) to improve performance and reduce future mistakes and errors.
AARs or an informal debrief should be conducted after each training session as well. When all hands are looking for a better way to do things, focusing on what went right and what went wrong, you gain team and operator competency through the training process.
In TV cop shows and movies, tactical teams just walk or drive away after an incident. Quite the opposite is true in the SWAT community. As a matter of fact, I don’t know who said it but I repeat it often to my team, “SWAT is a thinking man’s game.” Experience is an excellent teacher, but only if the lessons learned are recorded and acted upon. Take the time to sit down and systematically review your training and operations. The after action review or tactical debrief is an excellent way of helping to ensure that lessons and men aren’t lost in future operations.