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Disaster Zone: COVID After-Action Reports


January 11, 2021 by Eric Holdeman
Category: Emergency Management , COVID-19

Disaster Zone: COVID After-Action Reports

After any disaster it is appropriate to prepare an after-action report (AAR), which looks back at the event to document what went well, what went poorly, and, ideally, to look at solutions to issues that came up during the course of the disaster response. The most important aspect of the AAR is the preparation of an improvement plan (IP), which specifically identifies the problem areas that arose during the response and then designates the appropriate people and organizations to find solutions that will prevent these problems from recurring in the future.

The coronavirus, also called COVID-19, is an event that has wreaked havoc across the nation in communities large and small. Normal processes were thrown out the door and new modes of operating had to be implemented. Plans that had been in place were found to have serious gaps or challenges that had not been anticipated.

Common After-Action Findings

After having been a participant in several COVID after-action report processes I can tell you that no matter your organization, there are likely some additional tasks to be done to bring your operational concepts and procedures up to par. Here are just a few common findings:

  • Most organizations were not ready to have portions of their workforce work remotely.
    • Many did not have a telework policy in place.
    • The resources needed for staff to work remotely, including hardware, software, and connectivity, were not readily available.
    • Standards for working remotely — and just the simple decorum for video conferencing — was not defined.
  • Labor agreements did not address a pandemic environment and adequate health and safety conditions. What is negotiable?
  • Business continuity plans and continuity of government plans did not anticipate how the definition of “essential personnel” would change in a pandemic.
  • Pandemic plans did not address the issue of test kits or testing procedures and how these would integrate with work rules.
  • The personnel management aspect of the pandemic led to many ad-hoc human resource (HR) policies being developed on the fly — policies that an organization will now need to codify as permanent.
  • Return-to-work processes that define when and how people will return to an on-the-job environment are lacking.
  • Lastly, for those staff who physically have to be at work, what worksite-related protective measures are being taken to protect them and their families?

This is only a partial list of the challenges that the pandemic has brought to bear on governments and agencies.

Two Major AAR Paths

There are two major paths to take when conducting an AAR. The first is to organize the effort internally and have the research led by assigned staff who ask for input from all the responsible divisions and sections. These staff capture and document valuable “lessons learned,” combining them into a single document.

Alternatively, an outside consultant may be hired to do this work. Doing so allows internal organizational staff to still provide input, but you get an independent and, depending on available funding, more detailed look at the organizational response.

Critically, the follow-up to the AAR is the most important task, one that is many times left undone. It is why many an AAR labeled “lessons learned” in reality becomes a documentation of “lessons observed,” without the requisite fixes being applied to remedy those areas needing improvement. This is where the leadership of an organization needs to take the lead and follow-up with those assigned to address corrective actions.

Kirkland’s After-Action Report

I know of a few organizations that are working to document what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic via an after-action report. One that has been completed is from the City of Kirkland, which was the first community in the nation to respond to COVID. See their report at First in the Nation: COVID-19 Initial Response After Action Report.

A Few Wise Words

I recently was able to do an exit interview with the current national Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Peter Gaynor. In one of his responses he shared these thoughts, which apply to the topic of this blog post:

I want to thank every emergency manager across the country for rising above and beyond to this historic and unprecedented challenge of responding to COVID-19. Second, be wary of short-term memory. We have plenty of lessons-learned in our unified response to COVID-19. From telework to the importance of warehousing PPE, we all tend to move on to the next challenge or priority. Take the time now to conduct an after-action report, formal or informal, and commit to make changes that improve overall performance. Not just performance of your emergency management program, but the performance of your response system in the jurisdiction you serve.

These are wise words from the top. Now it is your turn to take action to document and improve your agency’s COVID response in order to have a better response and outcomes in the future.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Eric Holdeman

Eric is a nationally known emergency manager and consultant. He has 28 years of emergency management experience, having served at the federal, state (Washington), and local government (King County) level, as well as in the nonprofit sector. He is the Principal for Eric Holdeman and Associates and serves the Director for the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER).

He is a prolific writer, authoring numerous articles for professional journals and opinion pieces for local, regional and national newspapers including the Washington Post. He is a Senior Fellow and contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine, where he blogs about emergency management and homeland security at www.disaster-zone.com. Eric also hosts the Disaster Zone podcast.

Eric is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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