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President's Letter: A Big Step into a Small World

Just days ago, I had the opportunity to witness our world grow smaller.

As I write this column, I'm flying back from an historical meeting of fire service leadership organizations from around the world. At the risk of sounding too dramatic, the past few days have created a profound change—not just in my own worldview, but for the future of the IAFC.

It Started at the Beginning

The fire service is full of small-world moments. It’s hard to go anywhere or meet any one of our brothers or sisters without coming away with finding someone you’ve both worked, trained, attended recruit school, contributed to a project or rode Harleys with. We find strangers who share our passions and concerns. And if you have a few years under your belt, you find yourself often saying to your new friends, “Yep. I’ve been there before.”

The IAFC has been in existence since 1873, when Chief John Damrell of Boston sought to make his world a little smaller. We were formed as a result of the Boston conflagration and the inability of responding units from neighboring communities to connect to the city’s water supply because of nonstandardization of fittings. It made no sense to Chief Damrell that they were neighbors—fellow firefighters facing a common enemy—and yet they were disconnected.

Sound familiar? Yes, even across 138 years, it’s a small world.

Since Damrell’s days, the members of the IAFC have further shrunk the fire service of North America—north to Canada, over the Rockies, across land and sea to new states and territories—representing the leadership of the United States and Canadian fire service, but with few exceptions, not much more than these two groups.

It seems that just at the world was becoming more global, the IAFC put on the brakes. Certainly, the IAFC continued to connect with the broader international community, mostly through conference participation or visiting delegations. While each of these encounters was beneficial, they afforded little opportunity to engage, leading to a multiyear effort among IAFC leadership to reestablish our global identity. Or as many say, “put the ‘I’ back in IAFC.”

The “I” is Back

For the past several years, the IAFC has been working hard to meet with and establish ongoing relationships with individuals from similar organizations overseas. Less than a year ago, at a meeting in Memphis between IAFC CEO and Executive Director Mark Light and his counterpart from the U.K., Rhonda Bedford, business director of the Chief Fire Officers Association, a plan for a long-discussed international summit was formulated.

There has never been a forum of fire leadership organizations to gather specifically to discuss our commonalities and our challenges—until now.

Fifteen fire service leaders meet for two days in Zurich, Switzerland, with representatives from five continents, only Antarctica and South America were not represented (unfortunately, the member from South America was unable to attend at the last moment).

We had a special program by the Japanese representatives, Sakai Shuji, Secretary General, and Ogawa Tsutomu, Administration Section Chief, from the International Fire chiefs' Association of Asia & Fire Chiefs' Association of Japan, about the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in their country. The fire chief of Oslo, Norway, Chief Fire Officer of Oslo, Norway, Jon Myroldhaug, gave a presentation about the recent bombing and massacre there.

After introductions and descriptions of each member and the organizations we represented, we discussed our common issues. Among these issues were communication challenges, incident command, the economy and funding issues, and common language during joint response. After a series of discussions, the group selected eight issues to work together on for presentation to the general body at a future meeting.

From International to Global

Together we discussed the relationship under which we wish to continue working together. It was decided that we would meet as a loose-knit federation of independent organizations next year with potential solutions or directions to begin to resolve some of our common problems. If successful, this may become an annual gathering of fire service leadership organizations, with an expanded group of participants.

What began for us as the IAFC back in 1873 has, this year, begun the process of globalization of fire service leadership to improve our service to all communities around the world. Personally and for the IAFC, it has transformed the ocean below me to something that no longer divides, but connects. It really is a small world.

Chief Al H. Gillespie, EFO, CFO, MIFireE
President and Chairman of the Board

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