Heading Off To Conference

Multiple authors


You walk into the conference hall, your badge strategically hanging from around your neck. You have one eye on the phone app and the other on the crowd. Fortunately, this conference is about you. But where do you begin? Three days of emergency dispatch immersion, it is almost your turn at check-in, and you have neglected to bring a jacket.

Fish out of water

Conferences are all about going outside a comfort zone or, at least, that’s the overall opinion for making the most out of a blitz of presentations, introductions, social chat, and networking. The radical change in environmental emphasis takes attendees off script and forces direct contact. It’s like a fish out of water. Can emergency dispatchers survive outside the communication center?

Susi Marsan, EMD, ETC Curriculum Council Chair for the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED), attends the annual NAVIGATOR conference like clockwork—except for the COVID-19 years and subsequent quarantine. She is delighted to impart conference-attack strategy based on over 30 conferences under her belt and, at the same time, thrilled to keep on learning in a profession that never stays still.

During last year’s conference, Marsan was early to an afternoon presentation focusing on conference prep. She arrives expecting PowerPoint and questions from the audience. She can also add to the discussion, but not so much in the sense of “been there, done that.” Marsan chooses sessions with the goal of “being a lifelong learner.” If she’s been there, why go back?

The tables turn on the audience. Presenters are asking the people facing them to write an article, and not from notes taken during the next 45 minutes. They are to choose two other people—preferably people they do not know except by name tag—and each is to interview the others. The topic: What makes for a great conference experience?

Top tips and helpful strategies

It isn’t always obvious how to get the most out of a conference. Maybe you are unsure of your goals or less than confident about networking, explained moderator Mike Taigman, author of Super-Charge Your Stress Management in the Age of COVID-19, who has more than four decades in the emergency services profession.

This would be the audience’s chance to get the most out of a conference through the eyes of peers and have the findings published by two emergency service magazines.

Consider this an opportunity to give valuable advice to others, said co-presenter Jonathan Bassett, editorial director of EMS World. Session attendees would get credit for their work in compiling tips—the collaboration would result in an article that would be published by EMS World and the Journal of Emergency Dispatch.

Heather Hunt, ENP, Security Supervisor, North and East Regional Security Operations Centers, Allina Health, Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA), and Christi Swope, EMD, Life Flight Eagle Air Ambulance, Kansas City, Missouri (USA), got right down to the business at hand. They discussed personal reasons to attend and how the experience benefits their team members.

“Align what you want to get out of the conference and balance that with your agency’s needs,” Swope said. Hunt added to stay open and alert for those “a-ha” moments. “It’s a fantastic experience for expanding knowledge beyond the office” and to those inside the communication center, Hunt said.

Everyone has a first time

Remembering why you are attending the conference is an important takeaway voiced by the majority—if not all—of those who sat in on the session. Dismiss fear of the unknown and soak in knowledge and networking. “Don’t be afraid. You’re not alone,” Swope said. “Everyone has a first time at a conference.”

Conferences are all about “taking pieces that may not apply to your own current role,” Marsan said. It’s all about being all-in and making sure you are invested.

Above all, “Be comfortable about being uncomfortable,” said Danielle Denman, dispatch supervisor for Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority, Rifle, Colorado (USA). “Get out of your shell and expand your horizon.”


Tips from the interviews (conference pros and newcomers):

1.    Define your conference goals

a.    Knowing what you want will help you figure out what to prioritize.

2.    Study the conference schedule

a.    Clear objectives make it relatively straightforward to pick out the breakout sessions that interest you most. 

b.    “The best experience is finding sessions that apply to your industry,” said Christi Swope.

3. Push the envelope and stay flexible (at the same time)

a.    Attend sessions that might not match your priorities but will introduce you to new territory—you can adjust your schedule. 

b.    “Be flexible and open-minded about attending sessions. Be sure to try something outside your comfort zone,” said Heather Hunt.

4.    Get to know the event and attendees (socialize)

a.    Introduce yourself to others. For example, walk up to a table and ask, “Do you mind if I join you?”

b.    “It’s important to network with everyone, especially the vendors in the exhibit hall,” said Erika Lakey.

5.    Study the conference layout

a.    Reviewing the conference space relieves the stress of rushing to the next session/event.

6.    Find out about networking events 

7.    Check which sessions are recorded and take notes

a.    Benefit co-workers though the knowledge you gained (emergency dispatchers, supervisory staff, field response units, and agencies relying on the center’s services).

b.    “Take notes to provide a toolkit for what you learned and can apply to future calls and share the information back at your center,” said Susi Marsan.

8.    Plan some downtime 

a.    If you don’t see anything on the schedule that inspires you, take the hour off. It’s OK to sit in the lounge area, peruse the exhibit hall, and sit down to enjoy a cup of coffee.

9.    Carry along a light sweater or jacket

a.    Conference centers—especially the larger cavernous rooms—can get cold when sitting still for 45 minutes or more.


Darci Ancalade is a supervisor at Yamhill Communications Agency, McMinnville, Oregon (USA).

Yasmen E. Barnett is a communications supervisor at Osceola County Sheriff's Office, Kissimmee, Florida (USA).

Danielle Denman is dispatch supervisor for Garfield County Emergency Communications Authority, Rifle, Colorado (USA).

Ashley Gilmet is a telecommunications officer for Jasper County Emergency Services, Carthage, Missouri (USA).

Heather M. Hunt, ENP, is security operations centers supervisor at Allina Health, Coon Rapids, Minnesota (USA).

Erika Lakey, ENP, EMD-Q, EPD-Q, ETC-I, is a 911 communications specialist at Osceola County Sheriff's Office, Kissimmee, Florida (USA).

Susi Marsan, EMD, ETC, is Curriculum Council Chair for the IAED.

Collin O’Neil, ENP, EMD, is a Senior Fire Dispatcher at Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, Concord, California (USA).

Christi Swope, EMD, is a communications specialist for Life Flight Eagle Air Ambulance, Kansas City, Missouri (USA).