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Bridging Theory with Practice:Qualitative Research to Aid Fire & Rescue

December 10, 2012 1752

Back in September 2011 I made the transition from a not-for-profit ‘think tank’ to the public sector to take up the newly created role of Research and Evaluation Officer at Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service (GMFRS).

GMFRS is the second largest fire and rescue service in the country, covering ten boroughs and serving 2.5 million people. The geography and demography of the area we cover is highly diverse: we serve both urban conurbations and rural locations, whilst the population of Greater Manchester is characterised by significant ethnic diversity as well as notable variations in levels of affluence / deprivation.

Research, and especially qualitative research, is fairly new to fire and rescue services. Historically, quantitative analysis has been prioritised; maps, graphs and stats sit comfortably within the sector. To this end, GMFRS, as is typical amongst other fire and rescue services, has been very effective in understanding where and when fires and other incidents happen and subsequently using this information both to allocate resources (i.e. fire appliances) and target our prevention activities towards those most at risk. However, qualitative research, which can help understand why fires occur, remains largely underdeveloped within the sector.

With this context in mind, GMFRS is unusual in having a dedicated research role, and in particular, one that is focused on undertaking qualitative research. The step reflects a growing recognition within the organisation that in order to further decrease the number of fires within Greater Manchester we need to better understand the behavioural and societal influences that can contribute to incidents occurring.

The relative infancy of qualitative research within GMFRS, and the fire and rescue sector more broadly, means that, in addition to creating internal infrastructure to support research, developing links with research-related partners has been a key priority for me in the course of developing my role within the organisation. GMFRS is fortunate to have a host of world class universities on our doorstep, many of which have been extremely receptive to developing links. This is not only driven by a keenness to explore shared interests, but also a palpable enthusiasm to identify opportunities to bridge theory with practice. Within GMFRS, there is wholehearted support for the value that academic research can bring to our organisation; whilst academic colleagues appear increasingly eager to demonstrate how their findings are applicable to practice – no doubt driven in part by the economic climate and the changing expectations of funding bodies.

For us, this spirit of collaboration is starting to take shape as a collaborative research project between GMFRS and the Salford Housing and Urban Studies Unit at the University of Salford. Facilitated by the development of an Honorary Research Fellowship, the two organisations will be working together on a cutting-edge programme of research that will involve qualitative research with individuals that have experienced an accidental house fire with a view to better understanding the behavioural influences that can lead to an increased risk of fire. We are calling this the Post Incident Research Programme.

The programme will be informed by academic theory but embedded in practice: GMFRS’ Community Safety Advisors (CSAs) will be trained as qualitative interviewers and the findings from their research will help them to better understand vulnerable groups and, as an organisation, support the continued development of targeted and bespoke prevention activities. Thus, whilst we are certainly setting our sights on academic output in the form of articles, papers and a presence at conferences, the success of the programme will be measured primarily by the extent to which the skills and knowledge of our CSAs are developed and GMFRS’ understanding of vulnerable communities is enhanced.

We are at the start of developing our research agenda, and indeed our relationship with an academic institution, and it would be really useful to hear the experiences of readers of Social Science Space. What are the challenges and opportunities of such an endeavour? And what do you think is the key to a successful partnership between academic institutions and practitioners?

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Ani Munirah

I have a friend who is reviewing the legal framework for fire and rescue services in Malaysia. And her research is purely qualitative.