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Why travel? Hold your own exercise to maximize your training budget

How to host your own training exercise in order to save on costs and engage all members

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When planning for a conference or regional-type event, keep in mind that most members want an element of excitement.

Photo/Chris DelBello

Are you responsible for the training in your department? Do your members want fresh training with new information and skill sets? Are you on a limited budget but determined to achieve meaningful training for your members?

Whether you prefer lectures or hands-on training, a great way to stretch your training budget dollars is by researching, planning and hosting small training conferences or events within your organization – and opening it to other organizations.

Large-scale conferences vs. small-scale exercises

Conferences and similar large-scale training events have been around for a long time, and there seems to be a surge lately in their numbers and the groups that provide them. But to me, there’s a better way for departments to approach training – a more cost-effective way – in the form of hosting training events.

I won’t bore you with a lot of the math, but consider the costs. Many conferences that require travel average between $1,200 and $2,500 per member depending on the length of the conference, a sizeable dent in many training budgets with little return.

For the cost of sending two members out of state, hotels, flight and other travel expenses, like per diem and the cost of two conference tickets, a training officer could provide that same training right in their own back yard to a much larger number of the department’s membership. Smaller events, like a single subject-type training event that requires fewer logistical considerations, are even more financially beneficial to the department.

Hosting your own event will also eliminate one of the biggest issues I hear associated with those mega-conferences, which is the inability for all paying participants to actually participate. Imagine spending $2,500 for a training event and not actually getting to participate in hands-on activities. Due to the overwhelming number of attendees at some of the larger conferences or events, some participants become spectators and may not be afforded the opportunity to physically run through the exercise. Hosting your own event almost guarantees a certain level of quality control during your planning phase.

Of course, traveling to some conferences is just necessary. There is no denying that. There are those conferences that target a very specific topic that simply can’t be handled internally or, because of logistical constraints or facility availability, require travel to get that particular training.

Identifying the training needed

Developing a conference is simple once you decide what type of training event you intend to host. The training officer must find a balance among the federal- and state-mandated training, department-required training, and the training your members need and want to perform safely and effectively on the fireground.

When planning for a conference or regional-type event, keep in mind that most members want an element of excitement. We are not necessarily looking to provide certification-level training at these events. Members are looking for new information, new skills, new tools for their mental toolbox. They will not likely be motivated to attend a conference or regional event that provides the same mundane training that is required for certifications or boring lectures. If you are looking for guidance, look to your members. Take a survey from your membership and start there.


A great way to stretch your training budget dollars is by researching, planning and hosting small training conferences or events within your organization – and opening it to other organizations.

Photos/Joe Buvid

From my experience and observation, it is always the basic skills that most departments forget to provide to their members – and it is those skills that the members really want. Basic skills can be incorporated into almost any type of event. Even if the speaker is there to speak on building construction, any or every skill can be included for hands-on training after the lecture, from hose loads to forcible-entry and search. You are only limited by your motivation and your lineup of training groups and organizations.

Once the main training topic is determined, you can move forward with researching the many groups and organizations that will travel to your city to provide the training.

Finding the right expert instructors

There are literally hundreds of well-trained and well-practiced training companies that travel the country providing training – fresh training with new perspectives – and the instructors typically aren’t afraid to speak the truth. They are not trying to sell a book or a product, only their skill set and a fresh perspective. Some have websites, but many more promote on social media sites.

There are speakers who travel around the country training on a single topic, and there are speakers who can literally speak about every topic. There are hands-on training groups that provide very specific skills, and there are hands-on groups that provide multiple training topics if requested.

The training officer must vet the training group before making a decision. One way to vet these groups is to review their websites and social media pages. Typically, they will advertise where they have been and where they are going. Contact those departments that have used them in the past. This is a key step in planning your event. It will help in avoiding any disappointment or embarrassment, which could hurt your efforts in any future training events.

Also, when researching and planning a conference or training event, keep in mind that you may have subject-matter experts (SMEs) inside your organization that can provide a single lecture or hands-on training station. The training officer can also be the opening speaker, give a lecture or conduct training.

If you chose to use members from your own department, they too must be vetted. The member must be a good speaker and capable of presenting a lecture or hands-on station. It’s also important that the member be willing and motivated to do so.

To vet a department member, ask them to do a presentation on their choice of subjects to a small group and get feedback from them to help make your decision.

Using SMEs from within your organization is a great way to promote the individual, the organization and your event. It is also cost-effective.

Training costs and logistics

Once a group or association is chosen, then price negotiations can begin. Do not be shocked by the cost associated with lining up a speaker or multiple speakers and groups, especially if you were considering sending only a few members to those expensive conferences. Hosting your own event allows you to customize the event, choose the training and the instructors, and train a much larger percentage of your membership.


A two-story building can give you ladder training, hoseline advancement, search and ventilation training at one location.

Photos/Joe Buvid

Logistics will be your biggest obstacle. If your organization doesn’t have a facility that can comfortably seat 50-60 attendees, you will have to reach out to partners in the community. Schools, churches and community centers are usually very cooperative when it comes to lending a hand in this situation. For hands-on training, if you do not have a department facility or a regional training facility, you will need to find another suitable location depending on the type of training taking place. Safe abandoned buildings provide excellent opportunities for multiple hands-on training stations. A two-story building can give you ladder training, hoseline advancement, search and ventilation training at one location. Junkyards are also a very popular location for extrication training.

The training officer should work to develop and build upon relationships with community and businesses leaders. This can make finding potential training site and opportunities easier.

Also, keep in mind that just because your department is hosting the event doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be located in your department’s training facility. This could be designed as a co-op event as well. It could be one department or multiple departments working together to organize the event. The idea is to provide conference-type events at a local level and save everyone involved a lot of wasted travel money.

Funding options: Grants, sponsors and more

Another way to make your conference bigger and better is to line up some sponsors. These sponsors can be the very vendors you use as a resource in obtaining equipment and apparatus. If they know that your conference or training event will be attended by multiple organizations, they are usually very happy to provide different levels of sponsorship. Be careful not to use competing vendors; this can create problems that you do not want to manage.

There are also many grants available to help fund your events. Some states actually reimburse volunteer departments for any cost associated with registration. How does this apply to the training officer? Contact or research your known state organizations that provide training funding, and have your conference or training event approved through them for reimbursement. Once that is accomplished, you essentially charge enough for each member to pay for any cost associated with the production of your conference and have it reimbursed.

When opening your conference to other departments, try to keep the registration fee to a minimum. The idea isn’t to profit, only to provide the best training experience possible and offset some of your cost associated with the speaker and instructor’s fees.

Having said all this, I have not seen many departments take the opportunity to provide this type of event to their members or work with their neighboring departments. It’s unfortunate, really, because this is a great way to promote and build relationships between departments while providing quality training and interaction between multi-jurisdictional organizations.

Overcoming hurdles: The training officer the budget

I know from experience that the major hurdles to accomplish this type of training often boil down to two key issues: the budget and the training officer.

I believe the training officer must be a very motivated and dedicated member to make their department’s training division or program worthwhile. I have seen many departments promote the position and either select the wrong individual or restrain the training officer with budget cuts and frustrate an otherwise motivated individual into leaving the position. Your department’s training officer and program are the most vital program that you can provide to the department.

A good training officer can find good training. A motivated training officer can find a funding source for good training. It takes effort and motivation to pull off a great training program.

The benefits are numerous

In closing, consider hosting your own conference or training event. Consider utilizing those speakers and groups that will literally bring the training to you. The benefits are numerous: You will eliminate most travel expenses; you will train more members for your dollar; your members will be more motivated to attend an event from an outside speaker or training group; you will build relationships; and you will promote your organization.

Editor’s Note: Has your department hosted its own training for the area? How did it go? Share your experience in the comments below or at

Chris DelBello is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He currently holds the rank of senior captain with the Houston Fire Department, working in the Midtown District. He is also the district training officer, which encompasses all the stations in downtown and midtown, and holds a Training Officer II certification. DelBello also serves as a captain with the Fort Bend County (Texas) Emergency Service District. Connect with DelBello via email.