Fire Safety With a Smile: Meet GWCCA’s Campus Safety Officer

GWCCA Campus Safety Officer Matthew Shannon. Photo by Ikram Omar, GWCCA Communications Assistant.

As Fire-Rescue International, the International Association of Fire Chief’s (IAFC) Conference & Expo, convenes this week and weekend (Aug. 7-10) at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), it marks Matthew Shannon’s third involvement with the event that brings approximately 12,000 first responder professionals to town.

Only this time, Shannon, who began his fire safety career as a 17-year-old-volunteer firefighter in Durham County, N.C., has a different perspective. That’s because Shannon is the Georgia World Congress Center Authority’s (GWCCA) first-ever Campus Safety Officer, specializing in fire and life safety program management. He’s in essence the Authority’s in-house fire marshal and is part of the emergency management division within the GWCCA’s Department of Public Safety.

From his humble beginnings as a volunteer, Shannon’s career path has led him from the frontlines of firefighting to behind-the-scenes of fire and disaster prevention and emergency preparation, including stints as a 911 dispatcher, a safety specialist for Kia Motors, and as a fire protection analyst for Cobb County.

He most recently served as Kennesaw State University’s campus fire marshal for four years before joining the GWCCA in November.

With more than 12,000 experts in firefighting, emergency medical services, search and rescue, terrorism response, hazardous materials spills, natural disasters and public safety policy converging on the GWCCA campus for Fire-Safety International, unConventional caught up with Shannon for a question-and-answer session.

Here are excerpts from that conversation.

unConventional | Campus Safety Officer – that could cover plenty of bases, so what exactly do you do in this role?

Shannon | So I pretty much handle all of the safety aspects at the Authority, mainly focusing on fire and life safety. I am deputized by the State Fire Marshal as a State Inspector. I approve all of our event floor plans as well as conduct inspections during the events.

unConventional | We know what fire safety is, what is life safety?

Shannon | Fire and life safety are both connected. As far as making sure exits are unblocked, that’s part of life safety, so that people can get out of the convention center in case of an emergency. Making sure the storage is done properly in the service tunnels and other storage areas so that it’s not blocking egress paths and that kind of thing.

unConventional | You do quite a bit of in-person inspection and canvasing on our 220-plus acre campus prior to and during events, do you keep track of your steps with a Fitbit or app?

Shannon | On event days, I probably average three-and-a-half miles.

unConventional | Ultimately, we’re all in customer service here at the Authority, regardless of job title, department or function – what’s your approach to interacting with customers and getting them to comply with safety standards without coming off as the mean ol‘ fire marshal?

Shannon | Usually I start with a smile. A lot of people will teach you that you don’t have to memorize the fire code, you just have to know exactly where to look it up. But a lot of it is knowing your (research) backing when you’re asking someone to do something. And once you explain it to them, “hey, we have to keep this open because it’s blocking this or that,” they’re very receptive to it. But it’s also about building relationships with exhibitors and contractors that we have for different shows.

unConventional | You came to us from Kennesaw State – are there any similarities between an academic campus and the GWCCA campus?

Shannon | Yes, they both are classified as a campus environment – obviously academics and events are quite different but we had quite a few different events while I was there (at KSU), so that was kind of an easy transition. Some of them were smaller scale, less of them were bigger scale because of capacity reasons but definitely on the event-side of things, a lot of similarities. When I was at Kennesaw, we started the football program, so I started a lot of event training and event safety training that I was able to go to and I developed a strong interest in events. There’s nothing better than wanting to work events at a place that all you do is events.

unConventional | Are you looking forward to Fire-Rescue International?

Shannon | Where I went to school, we would actually come to Fire-Rescue International. And we worked the conference. This will be my third FRI that I’ve been a part of. Once in Chicago, and the last time it was in Atlanta (2015 at the GWCC), I was actually here. It will be kind of interesting to see it from this side of things as I’m part of actually hosting it, rather than monitoring classes or coming here to interview with some chiefs for a future job. I’ll be able to see some people I haven’t seen in awhile.