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The Importance of Debriefing

Author: Charlie Maclean-Bristol

Charlie discusses how you can make the most of debriefs.

Last week two items came together which reminded me of the importance of debriefing.

As an independent party, who was not involved or from the area of the incident, I was asked to debrief a major incident that a company had been involved in.

Throughout last week the news was filled with the child exploitation in Rochdale and the horrific details contained in the report written by Professor Alexis Jay.

Both events reminded me of the importance of learning from an event. By this I mean implementing changes into ways of working and procedures to ensure that the event does not happen again or that the response is improved.

This week I thought I would share some thoughts on the subject of debriefing.

1. When do you conduct the debrief? If you’re dealing with a major incident then the response and its aftermath can take several weeks. If there are fatalities then the aftermath of the incident can take several months and there will invariably be a court case or police investigation, which could take years. If the debrief is too soon then there is the possibility of the incident still being managed. This means people are not able to take an objective look at the events. On the other hand if the debrief is too long after the event then memories fade and the issues are lost. For the debrief I lead four to six months after a major event was felt to be the right time.

2. A very eminent professor, who was an expert in child protection, carried out the Rochdale inquiry and she had a team of people to help her. She carried out a wide range of interviews to gain the information for her report. After an incident, we as business continuity people, are unlikely to get the same level of support to carry out an investigation. One thing I took from the Rochdale inquiry was that the person who carries out the inquiry should be independent from the organisation (if possible) and should have a good understanding of the issues involved. They should also be given sufficient time and resources to carry out the investigation.

3. If you are to conduct a debrief, then you need to think through how you are going to run the debrief session. A long time ago I was involved in the water industry. I had the task, as the Emergency Planning Manager, to conduct a debrief of a multi-agency water contamination exercise involving the Local CCDC (doctor responsible for outbreaks in the local area), the Local Authority, a hospital and various people from Anglian Water. I prepared what I thought was an appropriate agenda and started the debrief. Very quickly the debrief degenerated into some very heated arguments amongst the more senior and strong willed people taking part. I was completely powerless to do anything but watch. This ‘strong debate’ only ended after two hours when they had to go to the car park and put more money in the meter. On return the atmosphere became a lot more constructive. There are two techniques, which I highly recommend to people for debriefing. The first is a “structured debrief” which involves the use of posits, looking at what went well, what went badly, what have I learned and how would I do this better next time. It is in use in the UK by many in the emergency planning fraternity. The other is the After Action Review, which is a US Army technique for debriefing after operations. Both are extremely good as they provide a workable structure to the debrief and avoid the loudest and the most senior people imposing their opinions on everyone else. I would highly recommend using one of these techniques for debriefing and perhaps going on a course how to conduct them.

4. One of the key lessons from the Kings Cross London Underground fire in 1987 was that the emergency services underground had difficulty in communicating with those above ground and this led to a lack of co-ordination in managing the incident. In the report into the 7/7 bombings in London, twenty years later, was the same lesson. There were difficulties for those who were in the tube tunnels at the scene of the incident. They had difficulty in communicating with those above ground and this delayed and hindered the response. In debriefing we must have a robust mechanism for identifying the lessons learned and then implementing the recommended changes. Actions need to be allocated to specific people and a date put on for when the action is to be carried out. Management need to make sure that the actions are carried out otherwise the exact same issues will arise again in future incidents.  

Debriefs and enquires are often forgotten or carried out half-heartedly after incidents and the key lessons are not learned. Ensure that they are conducted at an appropriate time after the incident/exercise, that they are well organised/conducted and that the lessons/actions are carried though.

   

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