By Michael P. Dallessandro
It is a cool rainy day in a state or town that very well could be where any of us live. The flag is at half-staff, the bay doors are up and black bunting drapes apparatus exits. Firefighters and family members stroll around the building but absent are the smiles and friendly laughter that is almost protocol during a visit to the station. The chill you can feel both inside and outside tells you more than any words can: they have lost one of their own. People outside our “firefighting family” will picture many heroic scenarios worthy of a movie script that claimed the life of one of their homegrown firefighters. But one can only imagine the shock and disbelief a community will feel when it discovers that it lost one of its civil servants to an unexplainable incident at a conference or convention.
I had some of these thoughts when I received an email from a colleague informing me that a Pennsylvania firefighter attending a convention in New Jersey died tragically from drowning. It seems that each year we hear of incidents at conferences and conventions that result in injury or fatality. I have attended numerous conferences and conventions not related to emergency services and cannot recall an attendee being seriously injured or killed. People from many professions enjoy themselves at conferences and conventions but more people in our business seem to really let loose. I cannot understand why people who have the most education on how injury and death occurs so unexpectedly can have some of the highest conference and convention injury and death rates in the country. Maybe it is just due to our sheer numbers attending events, or the large amount of local, national, social and educational opportunities available to the emergency services field. Maybe it is just a run of bad luck. Maybe there is nothing we can do and adults should be left to police themselves. Maybe.
Maybe not! Just possibly it may be time for all of us to set a better example. I have had my share of good times at events, but as I get older, it becomes abundantly clear that our communities and our organizations expect responsible behavior both on and off duty. Maybe it is time for all of us fire service conference and convention veterans to demonstrate through our actions and attendance practices just what conferences and conventions are for and how to represent yourself and your organization while attending them.
Ultimately, the responsibility for appropriate and safe behavior at conferences and events depends on the individual attendee. However, officers, departments, fire service organizations, vendors, and event sponsors together should buy into the concept of ensuring there is an environment and attitude that promotes safety and responsibility. Fire departments should annually review the events they send their members to. Conferences and conventions that focus on education and training and those that take steps to keep attendees on a busy keynote, workshop, trade show track should take priority. Departments should avoid events that have extended periods of down time. Whether you are from a paid or volunteer department, the majority of the funds being used to send members to events comes from the community. In an ever-changing environment, where spending is often placed under a looking glass, you want to ensure education is the bottom line and social time is secondary. Attendees often view conferences and conventions as much needed R&R with no pagers, no emergency calls, and in some cases a break from work and the kids both at the firehouse and at home. Nonetheless, officers in positions of responsibility or leadership must conduct themselves appropriately. Remember, if your department is sending you, you may indirectly be “on duty” from the time you leave home base until you return. If an officer skips an afternoon session because the topic fails to catch his interest, or misses all of the morning sessions because he or she stayed out too late the evening before, junior officers or younger members will begin to adopt these attitudes and behaviors as accepted standards. We must break this cycle.
The risk of serious injury or death can begin as soon as your personnel depart for the event. Often firefighters work all night or volunteers who desire to conserve vacation time push to leave right after work, ultimately driving to the event dead tired. Multiple attendees may pile into one car and rush, speeding to the conference so they do not miss any scheduled activities. Organizations should make every effort to evaluate travel to each event their members attend.
Once at the event, officers and attendees should meet to review the program and available workshops. Departments should establish policies that require attendees to attend not only programs that are interesting but also direct them to attend workshops that introduce them to new areas of our business. People who have the “been there, done that” attitude have no business being at a conference or convention. Our business rapidly changes, and even experienced veterans can learn something. A good gauge for evaluating the “conferenceablity” of younger firefighters is attending short weekend sessions or programs with them. These are often good indicators of how they will approach a longer, more costly national conference or convention. Officers should also do their best to shepherd their attendees to appropriate evening dinner and social activities that reflect the intentions of the department’s reasons for sending their personnel. A good behavior gauge to use while attending events for your department is asking your attendees, “Would we be doing this if we were in our hometown, or in our station or in uniform?” If the answer is no, then you probably should not be doing it at a conference or convention. Fire Departments or local municipalities must establish clear policies in their manuals that outline conference and convention expectations for both behavior and attendance at such events.
The naysayers will dispose of this article as overkill,l possibly even boarding on ridiculous. They will say I am overreacting to a small problem and ask how can you or why should you police the behavior of a few adults who make bad decisions? Those who want to avoid policies or requirements to attend appropriate sessions will use vacation time, pay their own way and attend the parties. However, I have been to many conferences as an attendee and as a speaker. I do not believe that we have to wait for the next attendee to fall on his head in a hotel parking lot and die to see that we need to make some changes both in attitude and example.
Michael P. Dallessandro is a 23 year veteran of the fire service currently serving as Chairman of the Board of the Grand Island Volunteer Fire Company Inc. (NY). He is the creator of the RESPONDSMART Fire Apparatus Defensive Driving Program and is an experienced workshop presenter and conference speaker.