In more than 30 years of emergency fire calls, Mark Wessel had never experienced the loss of a fellow firefighter. That changed Dec. 22, 1999, when the Keokuk, Iowa, Fire Department responded to a duplex blaze that trapped a woman and her four children.
Three of Wessel’s firefighters and three of the children died in the fire that day.
Wessel, Keokuk’s fire chief, will be a featured speaker at the Missouri Valley and Missouri State Fire Chiefs Conference which will be July 6 through 8. The conference, hosted for the first time by the Columbia Fire Department, focuses on firefighter training and safety.
“I hope to impress the seriousness of the training,” Wessel said.
He also said he will emphasize that one of the most important goals of training and safety is for the firefighter to return home each day.
In April 2001, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program issued seven safety suggestions in the wake of the Keokuk firefighter deaths. At the time, Wessel told The Associated Press that his firefighters did not do anything wrong but that the report created safety awareness.
“We get caught up as chiefs in the everyday business and don’t allow ourselves to get involved with the ‘buck stops here’ with safety,” Wessel said.
Fire chiefs and chief officers from eight states will attend the conference, which will feature keynote speaker Gerald Brouder, president of Columbia College. The theme of the conference is “Leadership.”
The conference seeks to bring fire chiefs and chief officers from Missouri, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and Colorado together to share ideas and learn from each other.
Departments within the Missouri Valley Division share ideas and see what works for each department and figure out how to apply the ideas to their individual stations.
“We basically steal ideas from each other,” said Dean Martin, division chief for the Columbia Fire Department.
As many as 171 participants have attended the conference in the past. Martin said he’s expecting between 150 and 200 participants this year.
The three-day event will include an opening ceremony, a golf outing, a themed casino night where participants can gamble with play money and win donated prizes, a tour of the Rocheport winery, a scrapbook class and Mary Kay makeovers for the female spouses of attendees.
Fire chiefs and chief officers will also attend Missouri Valley business meetings and a board meeting, listen to speakers and get tips on firefighter safety and training.
As the head of planning for the conference, Martin has been working for more than 10 months organizing the event.
“This is a very big deal,” he said. “We have to sell our city and promote our fire department.”
The Missouri Valley Division was founded in 1927 and the conference, including the eight states, began in 1935. The conference has taken place every year since.
This is the first time the event has been held in Columbia.