A tool for combining research with action Rather than viewing disaster planning as an end in itself, one should view the process as a form of action research
In my last column, we discussed some of the reasons that so many disaster plans run into difficulty at the implementation point, using special-needs populations as an example.
We discussed how working from a foundation in daily activities and missions presents one of the best ways to develop the abilities to both expand the organization’s routine mission to include additional functions and missions required by a disaster and extend the skills, procedures and structures used in routine situations to accommodate the larger scope, intensity and/or duration of a disaster.
We slated this week’s column to explore how those objectives can be effectively met in practice.
More questions and more answers
Rather than viewing disaster planning as an end in itself, it can be productive to view the process as a form of action research regarding the organization’s mission and operations. “Action research” is a somewhat loosely defined paradigm that centers on an iterative approach to posing questions regarding how a practice or procedure can be improved in terms of some set of defined outcomes (Reil, 2010).
The initial question is examined on the basis of actions proposed and taken, and the outcomes are observed and preferably measured. Those outcomes are analyzed, and the question is then refined on the basis of those outcomes and observations. A second set of actions is proposed and taken to address the refined question (typically a variant on the original), and the outcomes of those actions are again observed and measured.
This is repeated as many times as necessary and is often seen as an ongoing part of sound organizational development. That iterative process is seen as a continuing effort to refine the practitioner’s understanding of the issue and the organization’s capacity and capability with respect to its management.
The goals of action research, as stated by Reil (2010), include:
1. The improvement of professional practice through continual learning and progressive problem-solving.
2. A deep understanding of practice and the development of a well-specified theory of action.
3. An improvement in the community in which your practice is embedded through participatory research.
Action research typically begins with a broad, exploratory question that’s often addressed by looking at one’s current practices in comparison to other practices that have been tried or recommended and the results these may have achieved.
The second iteration may then involve looking more specifically at one’s own practice environment and the specific pathways for change that one’s environment presents or requires. The next iteration typically involves proposing a vehicle for implementing a specific change and specifying measures for its implementation.
Cycles continue from there, based on evaluating the results of that implementation and proposing further refinements based on those evaluations. Pepperdine University’s Center for Collaborative Action Research depicts the cyclical process like this (see http://cadres.pepperdine.edu/ccar/define.html):
How action research might play out
Any good research process begins by clearly stating the problem and objectives. For this kind of inquiry, we need to specify:
• The precise objectives we’re trying to accomplish in a SMART format (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time bound).
• What we need to know and understand to approach those objectives effectively.
• Where the data and information we need can be found.
• How we can efficiently, effectively and reliably get to that information when we need it.
• What we need to do to put that information to work effectively when it’s time to “pull the trigger.”
• How we’ll know when our part is complete.
• What we’ll measure to understand how effectively we’ve met our objectives and refine our efforts in the future.
Perhaps the issue confronting you is how to deal with potential evacuation of congregate-living facilities (such as independent-living apartment centers) with multiple needs profiles.
Plans built to accommodate infrequent and relatively unlikely catastrophic events like hurricanes will likely reflect a number of the failure points identified in the last column; that’s just the way of the world. Occasional table tops or even live drills aren’t likely to improve that tremendously.
An effective action research approach would begin instead by looking at what aspects of the target problem are addressed more regularly and how those can be systematized and refined to make them amenable to extension and expansion.
It’s likely, for example, that EMS calls are handled in these facilities on a somewhat regular basis. What is being done to ensure that important medical and agency information is available to EMS personnel in the event that the primary patient is unable to provide it? If there’s nothing systematic currently in place, that’s the place to start.
The next iteration, then, would look at how effectively that procedure was working following a period of implementation, explore ways to improve it, and consider how to incorporate information needed should evacuation be necessary (where the person would prefer to go, what agencies and providers are responsible for care, what medical and service needs would have to accommodated). Cycles of refinement from there can easily be imagined.
The most important point, though, is that these procedures and plans will utlimately be rooted in things done every day. Accordingly, when it’s time to extend and expand, it will be a ready and logical step from what’s practiced and understood as routine.
If the organization uses a solid and consistent system of After Action Review, the further refinements contemplated in the action research paradigm become a direct, straightforward element of ongoing AAR.
We’ll talk more about that in the next column.
Riel, M. (2010) Understanding action research. Center for Collaborative Action Research, Pepperdine University. Accessed online 12 June 2010 at http://cadres.pepperdine.edu/ccar/define.html