The gap between responders & academia

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The world of Emergency Management and Resilience owes many of its successes to the principles of JESIP (joint emergency services interoperability program) which have encouraged primarily, the ability of Police, Fire & Rescue, Ambulance and Local Authority services to work together when responding to major multi-agency incidents- which can range from events such as the July 7th London attacks to widespread flooding. However, although the communication and coordination gap is closing between responding agencies, the gap between responders and academics is growing. For many of us in the emergency management and resilience world it is well recognised that many of the ideologies and values that are represented by emergency planning academics has formed the fundamental processes and guidance which is practiced and exercised by professionals, yet there are still numerous barriers between theory and practice, but why is this?

One of the key barriers between academia and practical emergency management is the rigidity that is often provided by the extensive guidance and fundamentals written about by emergency management and resilience academic professionals, often these philosophies can instil a “right or wrong” process culture in practitioners but it is crucial to acknowledge that Emergency Management is an art (not the colouring sort – at least not most of the time, though we are good at keeping within the lines!) but it is a subject which must remain fluid and flexible in its overarching principles and approaches to emergencies. For instance, the long-standing debate of the definition of disasters, emergencies and crises which have pursued both academics and responders alike –but we will save that for another blog! The important fact to understand is that risks and the severity of their impacts varies annually, monthly or even daily for some and hence, the approach to risks or at least acknowledged risks will vary dependent upon the severity of their impacts. The national risk register is a document which you may have heard of, and for risk and resilience practitioners it forms the basis of a grading matrix to calculate risk though even this document does not span the vast risk possibilities and therefore practitioners understand that although it is imperative for civil protection to be able to predict risks this is simply not always achievable, and thus it is often more appropriate to prepare for potential emergencies (even zombie apocalypses!).

Nonetheless, there are still limitations to the academic teaching of emergency management principles when compared to the practice and exercising of the subject as all subjects taught in a classroom will experience, there are some skills which cannot be taught or skills which only practical work can develop. For instance, the theoretical knowledge that has formed the basis of risk management lies not in these technical skills, but often in the realms of social science research to develop an in-depth understanding of the nature of crises and the reactions of people and/ or organisations to crisis, this is something that can only be fully understood when working in a practical environment. This same principle is also instilled in the wide array of emergency plans and procedures which are outlined by theoretical guidance, as without practical application these plans would be moot and would sit collecting dust as unwanted but necessary ornaments on a shelf when the practice and exercising of plans enables them to be living, breathing documents dissolving the gap between academia and practice.

There is a phrase which perfectly surmises this discussion, stating that “experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play” (Kant. I) proving that emergency managers should not dismiss academic research and a flexible relationship between academia and practitioners could close the gap between theory and practical emergency management whilst ensuring the growth of risk management and resilience philosophies.

By Heleena Chauhan