FLETCHER: AFD chief says community made conference

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

Call out the engine, Ring up the station … a four-alarm fire.

Marilyn Monroe

Chief James Carswell and members of the Albany Fire Department are still basking in the afterglow of the recent joint Georgia State Firefighters Association and Georgia Fire Chiefs Association conference hosted by AFD.

They have every right to.

Feedback from the 450 or so conference attendees has been overwhelmingly positive, so much so AFD — which hadn’t hosted a statewide conference in some 51 years — has been asked to become a part of a regular five-year rotation of hosting the event.

Marietta Fire Chief Jackie Gibbs said in an email to Carswell, “Your troops set the high-water mark last week.” Cartersville Fire Chief Scott Carter also weighed in: “… Everyone had nothing but high praise and stated that Albany Fire helped provide lasting memories. I am appreciative of all the work that was done and rest assured, you left a positive impact on Georgia’s Fire Service.”

Carter did have one complaint, though: “Your guide that carried some of the ladies to the shops and antiques stores enabled my wife to spend too much money.”

Such comments were only a sampling of the rave reviews that have come pouring in since the Sept. 11-14 conference, which, in addition to shining a burning-hot spotlight on AFD, had a significant positive economic impact on the community. But Carswell, in comments to the Albany City Commission Tuesday, said the department must share the praise.

“There’s no way we can even think about taking all the glory for the conference,” the AFD chief said. “We wanted this to be more than just a typical event, and for that to happen a lot of things had to fall into place. That they did is a tribute to this entire community.

“Albany proved that we can do things just as good as anyone else.”

Carswell said communitywide involvement goes all the way back to his department’s attempts to bring the annual conference to Albany. There, he got a boost from Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Rashelle Beasley.

“She helped put together a presentation that played a big part in our getting the conference,” Carswell said. “You have to remember that most of the members of the organization board are from Macon-north.”

Once Albany landed the conference, AFD personnel called on local businesses to purchase event program ads as the department’s lone fundraiser. The response was overwhelming, according to Carswell.

“Our book was larger by almost a third than we’d anticipated because local businesses supported us by buying ads,” the chief said. “Just about everyone we approached either bought an ad, gave us a door prize or gave us significant discounts on our purchases. Because of the overwhelming support, we were able to host the conference and have zero impact on the city’s budget.”

As preparation for the conference got under way, help and support poured in from all over:

— Officials with the Flint RiverQuarium opened their doors to attendees for a post 9-11 remembrance tour. MillerCoors provided liquid refreshments and Albany Communications provided hors d’oeuvres.

— Vendors at the Albany Civic Center sponsored heavy hors d’oeuvres for a Sept. 12 reception, and most attendees stayed on to enjoy a Thursday-night football tailgate party in the Civic Center, complete with 400 Jimmie’s Hotdogs (sold at a discounted rate), kegs of donated beer and peanuts.

— Rather than the standard hamburgers, hotdogs and barbecue “picnic meal” after Friday’s conference team competition, AFD personnel grilled and served 450 1-inch steaks (sold at a discount and prepared to specifications by Sam’s Club) with baked potatoes and salad. And, in keeping the local theme going, the night culinary class at Albany Technical College baked and served 46 pecan pies.

There was more: Albany Tech and Albany State University students volunteering to help with set-up of facilities; city Transportation and Parks & Rec volunteers providing transportation for family shopping outings at local venues; clean-up of the Veterans Park Amphitheatre and adjacent sidewalks by AFD volunteers during their Labor Day weekend; clearing of vegetative growth along the river by city Engineering and Public Works staff.

“These folks were firefighters; they love to eat,” Carswell said. “So we didn’t serve them ‘conference food’ for lunch. Riverfront Bar-B-Que, Pearly’s and Carter’s served lunches that offered a high standard of quality and quantity as well. There were just so many moving pieces in this. … The Hilton Garden Inn and Merry Acres, in particular, drew raves from the folks who stayed there.

“It was a complete community effort.”

While Carswell, his AFD crew, city officials, city employees and other volunteers who helped out deserve the lion’s share of praise for this most excellent showcase of the city, community businesses and individuals who made the guests feel welcome should be congratulated as well. They helped show that it doesn’t always require a disaster for Albany to work together for the common good.