Perhaps the most profound learning experience of my fire service career started with a call from a classmate in the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program: "Hey, Oklahoma State University is accepting applications from American fire officers interested in visiting the United Kingdom and Scottish fire academies. You should apply, and here's the contact information."
After reviewing the paperwork and speaking with Dr. Bob England, Oklahoma State University professor of political science and co-founder of the Fire and Emergency Management Program, I applied for one of the symposium slots. Dr. England told me the purpose of this symposium was to unite fire officers from the United Kingdom and United States to discuss concerns about fire service operations. The program was also designed to introduce U.S. fire officers to United Kingdom fire service policies, apparatus and operating procedures.
Shortly after the selection committee met, I received an e-mail telling me that I was chosen for one of the coveted slots. My only personal cost for attending the 12-day program was a roundtrip airplane ticket ($700) to London's Heathrow Airport and a $600 administrative fee to cover the charter bus for our many ground excursions. I was fortunate because my department approved the trip as a training assignment, so I was not charged vacation time - thanks, Chief!
As expected, there were numerous e-mail exchanges and scheduling revisions as the date of the symposium approached. As with everything in the fire service, planning is critical. I have to acknowledge there were butterflies when considering how far I was from home and for how long. After a 10-hour flight with a stop in Paris, I found myself in London getting my checked luggage, clearing customs, and navigating through London's Heathrow Airport.
Security was very obvious with roving patrols of constables with MP5 submachine guns held at the ready position. For an American used to police officers armed with pistols, seeing the constables with machine guns on tactical slings was a cultural enlightenment. The travel agenda had specified our rallying point at Heathrow since the U.S. participants were arriving on different flights originating from all over the United States. As I rounded a corner, it was a reassuring sight to see many familiar faces from my frequent National Fire Academy classes sitting in chairs and drinking tea.
Days 1 & 2 - Travel to and arrival at the UK Fire Service College
Eventually, all of the U.S. participants arrived without incident, and our UK Fire Service College host welcomed us to the United Kingdom. A charter bus transported us for the two-hour trip to The Fire Service College (FSC), a 550-acre training complex that is a former Royal Air Force base. The drill field has some 30 burn structures of various configurations, including large, multi-story warehouses, full-scale apartment buildings, a cargo ship, a replica oil-drilling platform, a train yard, military and commercial aircraft, and a replica of the Oklahoma City federal building in its post-detonation stage. This structure is used to teach building collapse - the upright structure contains classrooms and the collapse debris pile is used with the practical evolutions. Additionally, there are classrooms, dormitories, a dining hall, a store, computer labs, a library and two on-campus pubs (http://www.fireservicecollege.ac.uk).
Days 3, 4 & 5 - U.S./UK Fire Related Research and Development Conference
Our conference planning agenda was explicit in that the United Kingdom culture has not adopted the United States' business-casual dressing standards. Consequently, all the U.S. participants dressed for success in suits and ties for all of the conference sessions and meals. As a line fire officer, it was a new experience to put on a suit and tie when leaving my dorm room for an active training day.
For three busy days, we participated in conference panel sessions with our UK fire service hosts. Just a few of the numerous conference sessions included Overviews of the U.S./UK fire services - Where Are We Now and Where Are We Going; Management and Leadership in the Modern Fire Service; Employee Relations - Moving Beyond Labour versus Management; Managing Diversity in the Modern Fire Service; Preventing Fallen Firefighters: Experiences and Initiatives; Lessons I learned (and Those I Wished I had Learned) as a Strategic Leader/Fire Chief; Succession Planning: Mentoring Values, Expectations, and Life Lessons; Civil Contingencies/Terrorism: Mitigation, Response and Recovery.
The highlight of The UK Fire Service College experience was a formal dinner complete with sterling silverware and china. There were a multitude of courses complete with various brandies, wines, and cocktails. There were toasts to both the Queen of England and the President of the United States. This meal included an exchange of plaques and mementos that will be displayed at the FSC forever. I'm confident that 50 years from now I could visit the FSC and still see our donated US plaque commemorating the 2005 UK/U.S. Symposium hanging on the FSC museum wall.
Days 6 & 7 - The London Fire Brigade, House of Parliament and Sightseeing
An early-morning bus ride started Friday off with a most exciting agenda. We would have a quiet two-hour ride through the beautiful English countryside, enjoy pleasant conversations with my fellow participants and our English hosts, and just take in amazing views. As we approached London, the noises, smells and traffic associated with every major city encircled the coach. Our arrival at the London Fire Brigade (LFB) Headquarters was just as exciting for our LFB hosts. Fire officers and staff members were waiting for us as we entered this magnificent administrative and training complex that occupied an entire city block (http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/).
London Fire Commissioner Ken Knight welcomed us to the LFB and provided a catered brunch and social greeting time. Eventually, we were directed into a conference room for a solemn presentation on London's terrorist subway and bus bombings that had occurred in July 2006. The discussion was quite candid on both what worked well and what lessons were learned for managing future terrorist events. One personal tragedy for the LFB was that one of its civilian staff members, Lee Baisden, was killed in the attacks while on his way to work.
As London Fire Brigade senior chiefs offered their remarks, the emotions and anguish of this attack was clear. Most had played critical planning roles to prepare the LFB for terrorist events and had to respond to the actual events only a few blocks from the LFB Headquarters, then review and strengthen their operational response plans for future attacks.
Our visit to the LFB also included a tour of its training complex. The structure contains numerous burn rooms replicating bedrooms, offices, garages, etc., that create computer-generated fire scenarios from a master control room. Fire crews visit the training facility several times each year and the control operator creates the exact same fire conditions for each crew. The goal is creating standardized drills to objectively evaluate team performance.
After departing the LFB, we traveled to the Houses of Parliament for a guided tour and meeting with an elected member of Parliament (similar to our congressional representatives) who shared his intense admiration for the UK fire service and the funding and operational challenges it faces. Most inspiring was his resolve that terrorists would not prevail and undermine the spirit of the English people. He reminded us of their steadfast bravery during World War II, when England stood alone against Germany's aggression until the Americans entered the war after Pearl Harbor.
Day 8 - Warwick Castle and Stratford Upon Avon
Day 8 was a pleasant Sunday with guided tours of Warwick Castle (http://www.warwick-castle.co.uk) and the hometown of William Shakespeare (http://www.stratford-upon-avon.co.uk).
Days 9, 10 & 11 - Scottish Fire Service College (SFSC)
The Scottish Fire Service College (SFSC) administrative building is a former hotel acquired many years ago. The training complex offers the structures and training resources found at most American state fire training academies (http://www.scottish-fireservicescollege.org).
Over the next two days, we participated in an array of training sessions on the continued professionalism and challenges facing the Scottish Fire Brigades. The staffing, funding and operational challenges they face exactly match those of their American firefighters. On our final night at the SFSC, we attended a formal dinner with traditional Scottish dancers and music - very inspiring! On our final day in Scotland, we were driven to the Scottish Parliament for a private tour. I found myself in a small coffee shop enjoying coffee and breakfast with some of the icons of the American fire service. It was a most powerful moment in my professional fire service development to have the honor to participate.
I reflected upon my own journey from a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter, attending EMT school while still in high school, being fortunate to be hired by the Clayton County, GA, Fire Department, working my way up the promotional ladder, attending college, graduating from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program, receiving an appointment as a contributing editor to Firehouse Magazine, and being a guest of the United Kingdom and Scottish fire services.
Day 12 - Home to the USA
Our motorcoach departed the FSC at 4 A.M. in order to get us to Heathrow Airport by 6 o'clock. Once we arrived at the airport, there were heartfelt goodbyes and handshakes to our UK hosts and American colleagues. After an uneventful 10-hour flight home, it was wonderful to hear U.S. Customs state, "Welcome home!"
DR. BILL LOWE, EFO, MIFireE, EMT-P, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a captain/shift supervisor with the Clayton County, GA, Fire Department, where he has worked for 27 years. Lowe has a doctoral degree in human resource management, is a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer, and is pursuing a master of disaster science degree.