Conferences and trade shows are invaluable to professions in that they provide unique opportunities to better the profession regardless of which one it is.
The fire service is no different, and all departments and individuals can benefit by actively participating. Attendance must be considered a vital component of professional development for those who strive to attain the highest level of performance. Yet, there remains a stigma of sorts in many communities that these conventions are nothing more than junkets taken on the public dole and offer nothing but a good time for those who attend. This perception has to be addressed; individually and collectively, the fire service must continually promote the value of attendance to those who ultimately control the budget.
There is no doubt that the nation’s economic conditions of the past few years have made participation difficult for many. For example, in my community a decision was made that there would be no out-of-state travel for any reason. This was a political decision to let the public know that we-as an entire governmental entity, not just the fire service-were taking action to control costs. In spite of the fact that I could anecdotally cite many cost-saving examples from information obtained at certain venues that more than paid for attendance, the perception trumped the logic. This is a reality, and departments must consider a strategy to address this. Even with a sound strategy, there will be cases where the political policy will stand regardless of various arguments.
Fire service leadership must work on changing the perception that conferences and trade shows are luxuries and nonessential components of a high-performing, professional organization. A big part of this is understanding the specific value of every opportunity and being able to explain it in simple, nonemotional terms that make sense to the average person. This is not easy in many cases because the perceptions are deeply embedded and it is easy to say no and cite the political reasoning. It takes work to get approvals, and relationships are key so that you have the opportunity to offer your reasons.
I recently attended the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) Apparatus Symposium in Orlando, Florida. It was the first time I attended, and I left wondering how much money I had wasted over the years by not having members of my organization attend this conference. Many experts in the apparatus profession were assembled-those who truly understand the industry. I am so humbled by the lack of knowledge I have about the specifics of apparatus and how much others know about the subject. It would not be hard to find ways to save on future apparatus purchases and subsequent maintenance costs by spending time at this symposium. I am sure with very little effort I could identify items that would more than cover the expense of the trip.
Here is a specific example. I was talking to Mike Wilbur, a retired lieutenant from the FDNY and an expert in fire apparatus issues. He asked me a very simple question: Would I consider building a structure that costs approximately $750,000 without hiring an architect? I said no. My reason is that I don’t build things like that very often so I don’t know the intricacies involved. He then asked me why I would spend that much money to buy a ladder truck without help. It was a very good point that I will certainly use in the future. I think that tip alone made the trip worthwhile. If you don’t regularly and routinely purchase apparatus, you are at a disadvantage and likely will spend more than needed or end up with apparatus that is not as reliable as it needs to be. The chances of making a mistake because of inexperience are great.
The practicality of attending all the conferences that exist is impossible. You don’t have the time or financial resources. Consider offering other department members an opportunity, depending on their current or future job responsibilities. For example, those who are in the market for fire apparatus need to gather as much information as possible. Attendance at vendor shows is valuable. Obviously FDIC is the “granddaddy of them all.” There are more options and choices there and probably more, in sheer volume, expertise. If attending this conference is not possible, there are often other options locally or within your state. I realize it is not always possible, but the point is that fire service organizations must view these opportunities as important and not just a waste of money.
There are more conferences, expos, and workshops than ever before. This makes some sense as the roles and responsibilities of the fire service have expanded. At one point, fire departments only needed to know about fire issues. Now there are so many added services that it takes a great deal of effort to stay up to speed on all of them. Conferences now cover EMS, hazmat, leadership, management, safety, and virtually any topic covered in the all-hazards world of fire. Individuals and organizations need to conduct an inventory of their primary needs during any given year. Then, prioritize the list and try to get individuals to as many events as practical, possible, and affordable.
FDIC remains a great option if you can attend only one event. It literally covers everything. It is the biggest vendor show in America, and a huge list of training opportunities awaits all attendees. The topics are varied and cover subjects applicable from firefighter to fire chief. There is something on every discipline, and the conference attracts experts in all fields. One of the challenges in attending FDIC is having the discipline to narrow your focus because the size of the event can be overwhelming at times. Those planning to attend must have a good strategy and plan how to maximize their time and hit the parts of the show that are most applicable. There are so many vendors that if you spent even two minutes at each vendor you could not see every one of them. You need to have a focused approach.
If FDIC is not in your future, consider state and regional offerings as well as specialty shows that focus on EMS, hazmat, safety, apparatus, and so on. These are more intimate and offer a more narrow focus in some cases. You can go to an EMS conference and know that the topics are related to current issues such as the Affordable Care Act. For some organizations, this might be the best option based on department needs.
Those in attendance accept a great responsibility to maximize their experience-for themselves and their organizations. They must take this seriously and make the conference their only focus. That is not to say that you can’t enjoy the experience. There are always opportunities to do so, and often the social events are as valuable. Obviously when fire people gather they talk about fire issues. But, be careful not to overindulge or do something that could be interpreted as abusing your privileges to attend conferences. It will adversely affect you, your department, and possibly the fire service. As unfair as it is, reputations regarding the use of travel as a junket can be established, making future visits difficult or impossible. Behave yourself!
I am a big believer in the value of conferences regardless of their size or location. I think shows like the FDIC are invaluable to the overall well-being of the fire service. I cannot imagine where the fire service would be without these resources. How would we advance the service without the interaction and education offered at these established venues? National conferences on specialized topics, state and regional events, and even local seminars help everyone contribute to the advancement of this fine profession. We need to continue our attendance at and support of events that improve us as a profession.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.