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Inside the World Fire Congress: A gathering of fire service leaders like no other

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell details the historic event that’s expanding international collaboration


U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell speaks to delegates at the first-annual World Fire Congress.

I have loved the fire service for as long as I can remember. It started when I was around 4 years old, and a family friend had rubber pull-up boots, a black leather helmet and a canvas duck coat in the back of his woody station wagon. He explained that in addition to being a home improvement contractor, he was also a firefighter. That was the first moment I gave much thought to the existence of firehouses beyond my own neighborhood.

As I grew and learned about various fire departments, I concluded that “If you’ve seen one fire department, you’ve seen one fire department.” While communities may look the same, there can be a wide and diverse range of fire department types protecting our communities – career, volunteer, combination, military, industrial, rural, contract, municipal and beyond.

I became fascinated by the fact that fire departments had the same mission but did their jobs in many different ways. I also became perplexed that many of them were unaware of how, for example, a fire department providing service to a community just like theirs had no idea how others were providing that service. Sometimes communities right next door to one another rarely communicated, if ever, creating these “fire islands” with nothing going on among them to better their members and the public.

As time went on, I certainly enjoyed watching as some departments did start to discover their neighbors, collaborating and talking about mutual problems and potential solutions. Too often we spend our time working to solve a problem without looking past our fire district borders (not to mention our traditions or egos) where we might find that some other department already solved the problem years ago.

The good news: We are making progress in the sharing of ideas and the solving of mutual problems. Some of that is as simple as doing a Google search. Sometimes it’s reaching out to our associations. Or it may be going to a neighboring fire department to have lunch.

World Fire Congress: “Let’s have lunch” on an international level

In some respects, the World Fire Congress was an invitation to the top fire leaders of each nation to simply sit down and have lunch. Of course, it was much more than that, but the “let’s have lunch” mindset is a good start to understanding. Let’s have a meal and talk about our common challenges and consider what solutions are out there that we may not at all be aware of.

This first-ever World Fire Congress was held in Washington, D.C., May 5-8, 2024, giving a literal seat at the table to top-level fire administrators from 56 nations. While there was a single delegate from each nation, the delegates could have some of their deputies or aides attend as well. Additionally, there were 166 gallery members – fire chiefs, fire officers, national and international advocacy organizations, and industry leaders. I was privileged to have been invited to attend as a gallery member.

Being an international event, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and the U.S. Fire Administration hosted the event in partnership with the U.S. Department of State and the World Bank, with logistics and in-kind support provided by U.S. national fire organizations.


A delegate to the World Fire Congress signs the Statement of Founding Principles and Objectives.

A conversation with the fire administrator

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, our fire administrator, served as chair for the event. Dr. Lori has come a long way from her early days as a firefighter-paramedic in Memphis, Tennessee. While much of her career after the MFD was spent at the IAFF, so much of what she did there involved working outside the association, collaborating with other groups to get things done – a reputation that holds strong as U.S. fire administrator. And like Coach Vince Lombardi, Dr. Lori doesn’t hold back when it comes to doing whatever it takes to accomplish the mission – to create winning outcomes that benefit the United States fire service.

I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Lori so that I could share with you important information about the World Fire Congress – what it is, how it started, what was covered in the meeting, and the future of the WFC. Here’s our conversation:

Where did the idea of a World Fire Congress originate?

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell: I was in Israel at a homeland security technology conference and the World Police Congress meeting was being held in conjunction with the homeland security conference. I asked a few people there about the police meeting, and apparently it had been in existence for several years and included collaboration from law enforcement agencies around the globe. I simply thought why can’t we do that with fire service leaders? There is so much we need to learn from other countries and likely a lot of knowledge we can share as well.

So I called a meeting of the core #OneVoice group and I ran the idea by them. They agreed it was something that they would support. The next meeting was in May 2023 with a small group of international fire service leaders who gather each year at the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Conference. I ran the idea by them, and they too were supportive. I asked them to commit to being a steering group and they agreed. Then it was off to the races (so to speak).

We needed to research whether this had ever been done before. There were several regional gatherings but never (as far as we could find) a global gathering of national fire service leaders. Once we had confirmation that this would be a new, innovative event, then we started the work on the detailed logistics of making it happen.

Who worked with you in taking the idea and making it a reality?
LMM: After getting the concurrence for the idea from the U.S. national fire service leadership, I needed to take the idea to the FEMA administrator and the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. They both concurred immediately and, in fact, supported the idea in each of their annual planning guidance for the department and the agency. We also reached out to the Department of State and received their cooperation and partnership.

How were the attendee nations determined?
LMM: There was no existing list of fire administrators in other nations. So USFA international affairs, external affairs and the steering group partners set out to identify the top fire leadership in every nation in the world. This effort was the most intense and most difficult of the entire World Fire Congress event. We needed to be sure that we bring the right people to speak for their nation so that we could establish something that would last.

How many countries attended?
LMM: 56 nations were registered representing every region and every continent on the globe. We also had two multilateral organizations to attend as delegates, including the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) and the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO). Due to space limitations (we never expected so many), we had to turn down the registration of two additional nations.

How were the WFC goals and objectives determined?
LMM: All challenges were determined by the steering group. The founding principles were developed by USFA, FEMA chief counsel and the U.S. Department of State. The Communities of Practice are based on the challenges presented at the Congress.

How did it go?
LMM: The Inaugural World Fire Congress was far beyond anything I envisioned. We have built relationships and now a global network of fire service leaders that will only grow.

What, if anything, would you do differently given the chance?
LMM: I would have anticipated more nations and reserved a larger space so that we would not have had to turn down some nations.

What are the sub-groups, their goals and objectives, and how often will they be meeting virtually?
LMM: The Communities of Practice (essential break-out working groups) have been established based on the challenges presented. Each of the communities will be led by U.S. federal staff and a U.S. subject-matter expert. The COPs will operate independently and likely meet monthly working toward a mid-term meeting in 2025 and then a report out on accomplishments at the assembly of the second World Fire Congress in 2026 in the United Kingdom.


Dr. Moore-Merrell and Mark Hardingham, the president of the United Kingdom National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), the next host nation of the World Fire Congress in 2026.

UK in 2026: What, after two years, will the expectations be?
LMM: There will be expectations that we will deliver a charter for the Congress and that the WFC will grow by several nations. We already anticipate 80 plus.

How does the WFC impact the firefighter and EMT in the street?LMM: The knowledge exchange of the delegates is key. We need to know solutions to common challenges that other nations are using. How are they successfully implementing building codes? How are they suppressing lithium-ion battery fires? Do they evacuate in high-rise fires or not? There are so many questions that will provide us an opportunity to learn and to share what we know.

How does the WFC impact the local U.S. fire chief?LMM: Other opportunities for knowledge exchange are in the area of leadership and policy. We anticipate learning about or developing model policies on lithium-ion battery regulation for products and for recycling. We anticipate exchanging best practices on firefighter recruitment and training and much more. For example, immediately after the Congress, several nations visited both Fairfax County Fire and DC Fire, as part of their time here in the United States.

Personal perspective

By nature, I am optimistic and am always up for anything related to learning, expanding knowledge as well as meeting other firefighters. Take that a step further, when I have had the opportunity to meet firefighters and officers from outside the United States, it’s always like a trip to Disney World for me – and I’ve made some lifelong friends due to those opportunities.

The WFC was that but supersized. Within a few hours, imagine having a conversation with the chief or lead fire officer from Ghana, then Jamaica, then Israel, then Switzerland. And that was just four, but that’s what it was like. We discussed everything from one nation having water issues because they have to use their precious drinking water to fight fires to another nation that responds to isolated lithium-ion fires by literally placing blocks around the fire to keep the public away and letting it burn, to long delays by responding volunteer firefighters because the traffic in one city has doubled in five years. One common denominator for all: recruitment and retention in both the career and volunteer services – almost all are having measurable problems.

The energy and enthusiasm at the event was palpable at every turn. One chief from an island nation said to me on the final evening, “I was not sure what to expect, but now I do not want to leave, and I want more!” It was obvious his comments were shared by many of the attendees.

That’s just a quick look at some of the side conversations I had at the World Fire Congress. Just like at any gathering of firefighters and fire officers, the side conversations can be as valuable as the main programs.

Moving forward

Some of you have experienced the frustration of not being able to move forward, not being able to collaborate with other agencies not very far away and yours. On the other hand, many of you have overcome these hurdles (sometimes it requires waiting for certain folks to retire!) in order to make progress, and your public and your members are better off for it. That is what the WFC is all about. This historic event – the first of many – seeks to deepen international collaboration among fire services, bringing the benefits of shared understanding and experience to tackle the challenges that fire services face globally.

As the Communities of Practice start their regular online meetings, we can expect to learn much more about both common and unique problems – and solutions – from one another. No different than when you visit a fire department other than your own, you gain ideas; this will be the same only, in the case, the entire world’s fire service is talking to one another – and the signal is loud and clear.

Chief Billy Goldfeder, EFO, a firefighter since 1973, serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department. He also serves as Lexipol’s senior fire advisor and is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Goldfeder is a member of the Board of Directors for several organizations: the IAFC, the September 11th Families Association and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). He also provides expert review assistance to the CDC NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Goldfeder is the recipient of numerous operational and administrative awards, appointments and recognitions. He has served on several NFPA and IAFC committees, has authored numerous articles and books, and presented several sessions at industry events. Chief Goldfeder co-hosts the website