Looking back to see where we’ve been, looking forward to see where we’re going
One of the advantages of applying a research lens to everyday practices, as CA does, is that it allows us to better understand our experiences and to learn from these experiences. The hallmarks of developing the BEmergServ have been the level of consultation, collaboration and partnership building that has occurred. In practical terms, achieving these hallmarks has required devoted attention to a number of key areas, in particular national and international consultation, negotiating boundary issues, commitment to a collaborative approach and an unwavering commitment to developing a curriculum that supports emergency service workers in our community. We have sought the participation of a wide range of stakeholders in this process. We have built a partnership between CQUniversity and our industry partners that will ensure the program will continue to be responsive to the needs of the industry, including the emerging need to have a strong focus on prevention. Finally, CA is an example of how we can model praxis, which is essentially practice founded on research, or as Paulo Freire (2000) defined it, the integration of reflection and action in order to instigate change. In this process, we are building the resilience of the program, the discipline and ultimately the communities in which our members serve.
Community resilience is a concept that is increasingly making its way into the emergency service language because of its prevalence in disaster management studies. As mentioned in Chapter 1 (Madsen & Chesham, 2015), there is no consensus regarding community resilience although in disaster studies, there are two dominant themes: resilience in terms of reducing community vulnerabilities and risk, particularly in seeking engineering solutions; and resilience in terms of building adaptive capacity within organisations and the general community (Colten, Kates, & Laska, 2008; Plough et al., 2013). In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis placed on the latter theme as community-based disaster management models and principles have come to be accepted within the mainstream of planning, preparation and recovery phases of disaster management (Cutter et al., 2008; Patterson, Weil, & Patel, 2010; Randolph, 2012). O’Sullivan, Kuziemsky, Toal-Sullivan, and Corneil (2013), in a study that was undertaken collaboratively with emergency management, health and social service agency staff, identified four key ideas as fundamental to better understanding community-based disaster management approaches. These ideas are focused around: 1) managing complexity as a dynamic context; 2) building situational awareness and understanding the importance of relationships built on trust and learning from others; 3) flexibility in planning and keeping an open mind to encourage adaptive responses; and 4) dismantling silos and adopting a collaborative lens to shift the focus away from the individual services to results for the community. The BEmergServ is embedding principles of participation, partnerships, prevention and praxis into the curriculum so that fire and emergency service staff are able to draw on these ideas and therefore better able to develop planning and interventions that emerge from the complexity of the situation, tailored to the community contexts in which they work. As O’Sullivan et al. (2013) have noted, a ‘one-size- fits-all’ solution approach has been recognised as being inadequate, and does little to promote community resilience.
Thus, students undertaking the BEmergServ will be encouraged to understand partnership building in terms of enhancing ‘bridging’ and ‘linking’ social capital; that is building stronger horizontal and vertical relationships between agencies, stakeholders and community members (Poortinga, 2012). A number of studies have demonstrated that strong social capital, in particular extensive bridging and linking social capital, is fundamental in how well a community recovers after an adverse event (Aldrich, 2012; Norris, Stevens, Pfefferbaum, Wyche, & Pfefferbaum, 2008). Building these bridging and linking relationships takes time and practice and needs to be undertaken outside of an emergency or disaster situation. Similarly, students will be encouraged to build skills and knowledge in adaptive capacity within their own discipline. Adaptive capacity refers to: 1) being able to respond quickly and effectively, in the right places in the right way; 2) having reserves and access to needed resources, thereby opening up safe spaces for operating; 3) keeping options open; and 4) having the ability to learn and store knowledge from past experiences (Tengo & Von Heland, 2012; Walker & Salt, 2012). From a discipline perspective, promoting adaptive capacity within the fire and emergency service workforce better positions workers to be able to respond to current and future political, economic and social changes. Finally, incorporating the concept of praxis into the curriculum allows students to normalise notions of practice based on the best evidence, and to contemplate developing a practice that integrates research on a daily basis. This allows practice to be dynamic and responsive to changes in contexts and situations from the ground up. Of course, such benefits for the discipline also benefit the community as more effective processes and structures are put in place to reduce vulnerabilities and risks.
As a result of using CA to reflect on the events and processes associated with developing the BEmergServ, we see this program as increasing the resilience in our graduating students because they will better understand the complex environments facing emergency service workers as they negotiate economic, social and political influences in their daily work by drawing on critical thinking and collaborative problem solving skills. We see this process will enhance the resilience of the emergency services discipline as we build internal capacity to address future challenges. We see the resilience of our communities being supported as emergency service graduates better engage with their local communities to learn from each other and to act and build adaptive capacities together that work to prevent or at least reduce risks.