Going where none have gone before

In January 2014, Professor Andy Bridges, Dean of Human, Health and Social Sciences from CQUniversity put forward a proposal to develop a Bachelor program for fire and emergency service staff. One of the authors of this chapter, Helen, was seconded into the role of Discipline Lead because of a background in the fire and emergency service discipline. Her first role was to establish a fire and emergency service industry partnership to investigate the feasibility of such a program and to undertake the necessary curriculum development. As she contemplated the enormity of the task ahead, she wrote in a journal entry:

The notion of developing a first of its kind, innovative and unique qualification aimed at the largely Vocational Education and Training (VET) educated emergency service sector seems to offer much promise. However this promise (assuming one has adequately settled the discussion about promise according to who and for whom) will never be realised without strong ties and linkages with the industry sector. This statement rolls off the keyboard relatively easily; however when unpacked in the emergency service context is actually quite a complex undertaking. This complexity emerges from a number of angles, some of which must be engaged with and others recognised and understood as being present. (12 June 2014)

Part of the problem confronting Helen was the disparate nature of the fire and emergency service sector with some services being aligned with state emergency service departments while others are aligned with health departments, and in some states, separate agencies have responsibility for services. There is no peak professional body that represents all fire and emergency staff and those that exist do not have uniform influence in order to negotiate directly with various agencies. It was clear the industry partnership needed to be broad in order to allow for wide ranging consultation and engagement with key stakeholders to ensure the program gained industry support and met the needs of the discipline.

A second complication that needed to be overcome was a level of uncertainty by frontline staff to the idea of tertiary qualifications and a lack of understanding about the role higher education could play in emergency service. One of Helen’s journal entries outlined these issues:

Forging ahead and blazing a new higher education trail for emergency service workers is not without issue. Assumptions about such an endeavor, both on the part of the emergency service sector plus also the higher education sector must be tested and frank discussions held. A range of assumptions must be tested and questions from those on the frontline must be carefully considered - some have already been asked... Who says we need uni qualifications to put out a fire? What’s wrong with what we’ve always done? What will unis be able to offer? Not unreasonable questions and ones that offer an opportunity to pause and reflect on why we are moving in the direction of providing undergraduate level qualifications in the emergency service space. This list of questions is however far from complete and as a University it is important that we are truly engaged with the discipline and the various communities that make up this landscape of practice. (31 March 2014)

However, the venture also had support from within industry. As Chief Superintendent, Andrew has reflected:

Currently as Director of Professional Development for Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, I see that formal extension of the learning framework into higher tertiary qualifications is a natural progression of current arrangements. Whilst a strong advocate of the organisational capabilities that are obtained from ERTO operations, I see the placement of general and specialised higher level qualifications as a “must do” for contemporary emergency services; indeed many Governments are demanding higher levels of tertiary qualifications from its senior leadership.

In my view, senior people must undertake further higher level education as it is an effective means of gaining higher order understanding of Government and organisational policy, and it forces improved understanding of operational capability systems and models. Undertaking this level of education also demands intellectual rigor, and a sound ability to communicate effectively in both oral and written forms. In reaching these objectives, having emergency service agencies partner with suitable universities is a logical and natural solution. (19 September 2014)

The final complication regarding establishing this program related to developing a curriculum that was effective but also efficient in terms of university resources. This required a significant amount of negotiation across various program and discipline groups internally to find a best fit between courses already offered and those that would need to be developed specific to the new program. One of Helen’s journal entries outlined these difficulties:

Curriculum, curriculum, curriculum, must keep my eye on the curriculum. As the story of the Bachelor of Emergency Service plays out, the complexity grows. Without maintaining a curriculum focus you could easily get lost in the multiple distract- ers that seem to present themselves with increasing frequency. If I were to briefly describe these “bundles of joy” it would go something like this:

  • a) The joy that’s been the negotiation of multiple boundaries. Being a new, first of its kind, innovative, agenda setting and agenda meeting initiative, the boundaries continue to emerge and require significant attention and effort. A great deal of time has and seems will continue to need to be spent on boundary crossing and boundary spanning - lucky I am flexible and relish a challenge.... Interestingly, some boundary crossing was anticipated, however was expected to present itself at the higher emergency service-higher education level, however this has not been the case.
  • b) Systems, systems, systems. Given the nature of the project and its innovative approach, a level of systems innovation was expected. The need to patiently and progressively explore that innovation was expected. This has however taken far more time and effort than expected - it’s slow going some days.... (20 August 2014)

Through this process of curriculum development, four foundational principles, shared with another program, emerged as being relevant to the work being undertaken in the BEmergServ: participation; prevention; partnership; and praxis. Understood within the context of emergency service, these principles provided insight into how this new program could address some of the industry needs as identified by emergency service stakeholders such as AFAC (2013). In particular by developing skills and knowledge in community participation to allow emergency service professionals to engage their communities to increase resilience and to be involved in risk reduction and preventive activities, to establish relationships with communities built on trust and credibility, and to develop a practice culture within the services based on research. These same principles were also evident in the work of the industry partnership as it developed the curriculum, although it was only as these processes were reflected on and explored more critically that this become evident.

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