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“Grey” areas and “organized chaos” in emergency response

Nancy Taber (Faculty of Education, Brock University, Ontario, Canada)
Donovan Plumb (Faculty of Education, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Canada)
Shawn Jolemore (Nova Scotia Health Promotion and Protection, Halifax, Canada)

Journal of Workplace Learning

ISSN: 1366-5626

Article publication date: 16 May 2008




The purpose of this research is to explore the interaction between organizational policies and daily work practices of paramedics and firefighters within two emergency response organizations.


Data were collected in a case study consisting of interviews, focus groups, and observations. The theoretical grounding for this research is framed by learning in practice through legitimate peripheral participation.


Analysis of the data found that paramedics and firefighters value learning in their daily work above initial qualification training. They learn in practice through increasing collaboration with others, and in the broader context of legitimate peripheral participation. Organizational policies can help in guiding their decision making processes, but learning in practice and relying on experience is most helpful in their daily work.

Research limitations/implications

The notion of situated learning is insufficient to explain the dramatic performance of emergent, creative, and autonomous actions often required of individual emergency personnel in crisis situations.


This study adds to the current literature on communities of practice and legitimate peripheral participation. It applies learning theory to emergency response organizations to demonstrate the need to focus on practice and understandings in workplaces. The research also offers a greater understanding of the unique job of emergency response personnel who must often make instantaneous decisions in critical situations and must therefore understand their practice to ensure positive outcomes.



Taber, N., Plumb, D. and Jolemore, S. (2008), "“Grey” areas and “organized chaos” in emergency response", Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 20 No. 4, pp. 272-285.



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Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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