By Dr. Randall Hanifen
Recently, I had the privilege of attending two fire conferences: the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). As I attended both conferences, I noticed some interesting trends.
Conference Numbers Were Back to Pre-Pandemic Levels
Each of the conferences was very well attended and exceeded the organizers’ expectations. While we should have expected fire officers to return to continuing education opportunities, I think it happened much quicker than organizers anticipated.
This increase in conference attendees wanting to improve their knowledge is a positive sign for our profession. About a year and a half ago, everyone believed virtual conferences would completely change the way fire officers received their training.
But there is definite value to in-person conferences. I noted that many of my fellow firefighters were happy to re-engage with other officers; the networking that occurs at these conferences is often a great attraction for attendees.
More First-Time Attendees at Conferences
At Fire Rescue International (part of the IAFC’s offerings), many first-time attendees were present. While the exact number of first-time attendees has not been strictly tracked over the years, the first-timers’ orientation held the night before the event completely filled the room, and there were many more conference attendees than in the past.
This change is refreshing; many people had predicted that the newer generation of firefighters would not care to travel across the country in the middle of the summer to attend a conference. The work/life balance was going to interrupt a long tradition of having summer firefighters’ conferences.
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That reluctance to travel during the summer may still become reality. State and local fire conferences are seeing this trend, and I have heard this sentiment from many local people as well. Conference organizations should watch for this trend.
Attendees Are Willing to Solve Current and Future Problems
At the Ohio Fire Chiefs Conference, I participated in a session related to the Wingspread VII findings and how these statements of national significance affected the Ohio fire service. I also discussed what solutions we had for solving some of these firefighting issues.
The attendees asked that we double the session’s length next year, as they needed more time to digest the information and develop workable solutions. From this request, it is clear that many attendees identified with the Wingspread VII findings and want to solve current and future issues confronting the fire service.
At Fire Rescue International, attendees filled the room for the sessions related to leadership and difficult administration issues. While operations sessions were also offered, the leadership and administration sessions offered fresh, inventive ways to lead the next generation and to anticipate difficult situations. Additionally, conference attendees enjoyed listening to Gordon Graham talk.
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Talking with Conference Vendors Has Given Way to Shopping Elsewhere
While vendors once held some of the largest trade shows at many conferences, I have noted that these trade shows and the size of their booths have shrunk over the years. I still like to visit with vendors to find information on a couple of projects we are working on or to see if someone is selling the latest gadget that will solve all of my problems. However, I have resorted to filling most of my equipment needs via internet retailers or local dealers.
Also, my time at these conferences is precious, now that I have ascended upward in the ranks. I find that I do not have time for the latest sales pitch. Instead, I am busy for three solid days attending as many classes as possible, evaluating classes to bring back to my organization, and networking with others to build a larger network that I can lean on during times of need.
As a result, I have very little time to walk around and explore the offerings at a trade show held during fire conferences. However, I have proposed product comparison sessions to conference organizers.
For instance, if I know I want to buy a new self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), conference organizers could set up a 45-minute session. Each manufacturer could demo their latest product, which would save me the time-consuming effort of setting up four different demonstrations at my fire department. This type of session would allow me and other conference attendees to leave with more information and a future direction.
In-Person Fire Conferences Are Back, But Adjustments Are Still Needed
Overall, in-person fire conferences have returned. Whether the popularity of in-person conferences is because attendees wanted to see their colleagues or whether the virtual conference trend was only good when you needed to save a three-hour dive to an hour-long meeting, fire conference planners can begin to return to their normal activities. But in the future, we may have to re-examine how firefighting products are presented to conference attendees and make adjustments for the instant search-and-purchase generation.
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