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A Conference Like No Other

Check your egos and certifications at the gate.

That was the prime directive for participants at EMStock, the unique outdoor EMS conference held on Bryan Bledsoe’s ranch this past weekend in Midlothian, Texas. This year’s event was the fourth EMStock, whose origins date back to 2003.

The original EMStock was conceived by a dedicated group of volunteers to honor the memory of Gene Weatherall, a true EMS pioneer and the guiding force behind many of the initiatives that ushered in Texas’ modern EMS systems. Shortly before Gene died of cancer in 1999, he lamented the fact that he had never been able to pull off a “statewide EMS pasture party and chili cookoff” in Texas.

In 2003, a small group of Texas EMS diehards convened in Bryan Bledsoe’s south forty to do just that. There wasn’t much in the way of vendors and sponsorship that first year — just good food, good music and lots of chili, interspersed with continuing education sessions and genuine EMS fellowship.

They continued the tradition in 2004 and 2005, braving the midsummer Texas heat to hear lectures from nationally renowned speakers, hear a few good bands, and browse the wares of the growing number of EMS vendors who were starting to catch on to the idea.

In 2006, EMStock was canceled due to the lingering aftereffects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and 2007 passed with organizers still pondering the perfect venue and time to hold it again.

This year’s event was held on September 26-28, and the weather couldn’t have been better. With blue skies, cool breezes and nighttime temperatures in the 60s, the setting was idyllic. With Hurricane Ike ravaging the Texas Gulf Coast barely two weeks earlier and many providers still doing hurricane relief duties, attendance was slightly less than anticipated. Still, well over 100 people turned out to hear a truly stellar slate of EMS educators and some lively local bands.

Nationally recognized names such as Keith Wesley, Ed Racht, Jim Augustine, EMS1 columnist Mike McEvoy, Bob Waddell and Bryan Bledsoe himself volunteered their time and efforts to deliver lectures on a wide variety of topics. From forensic medicine to Africanized honeybees, or intraortic balloon pumps to bundle branch blocks, there were topics to interest EMS providers of all levels. Rumor has it that another EMS1 columnist even lectured on airway management and ventured to entertain the crowd with an EMS comedy routine on Saturday night.

Judging from the laughs I got during my lectures and the response Gary Saffer and I got during our comedy routine the next night, people find us much funnier after they’ve had a few beers.

Not that there is anything verboten about bringing your beer into the CEU lecture tent, however. That’s another thing that makes EMStock one of the most enjoyable and least pretentious EMS conferences I’ve ever attended.

As conferences go, EMStock is about as egalitarian as it gets. As one participant put it:

“I’ve never been to a conference where you could sit next to a guy at a lecture, drink beer and eat barbecue together for three days, swap war stories with him, and only find out an hour before you left that he was a paramedic, or EMT-B, or pararescue jumper, or ER doc, or whatever. We were all just EMTs.”

Thanks to the barbecue and chili cookoffs, there was no shortage of great food. I had the great fortune of pitching my tent about 30 yards from the EMStock stage, and as it turns out, just a few feet downwind from the boys representing Mesquite Fire Department, who literally grilled all weekend long. No word on whether their secret lies in the recipe or in the snazzy fire department-themed grill and smoker — complete with gumball lights and working Federal Q2 siren, no less — but both of the brothers went home with trophies from the chili and barbecue judges.

Two of the helicopter EMS services even made an appearance, and contrary to popular industry belief, neither was met with antiaircraft fire from the numerous emplacements rumored to defend the Bledsoe ranch. No doubt prepared for a hot LZ, the crews from Careflite and Air Evac Lifeteam instead found the reception to be warm and friendly. The only thing hot was the chili from James Shiplett, which won the coveted Most Interesting Chili prize, a category previously owned by Bledsoe himself for his 2005 entrant, which reportedly was still burping, bubbling and hissing a full 24 hours after it was removed from a heat source.

Key to the success of this year’s EMStock was the participation of the vendors sponsoring the event. I’ll not list them all for fear of leaving someone out, but particularly visible were Masimo, Bound Tree, Reel Splints, Southeastern Medical Equipment and Brady books, who all gave away enough free schwag to equip a battalion of volunteer ambulances. Several lucky EMTs got to take Phillips AEDs and Masimo Rad-57 CO-oximeters to their squads back home, as well as a treasure trove of smaller items from various other vendors. I honestly think that everyone who turned in a ticket got a door prize. Texas’ own Rahr Brewery won the hearts of many thirsty EMTs by donating quite a few cases of their product for the occasion. I personally recommend the Ugly Pug Ale. It’s downright tasty!

I know that EMS product vendors are businesses first and foremost, and profits necessarily drive everything that they do, but it was quite refreshing to see some of these businesses brave enough to get behind a fledgling event and give it a boost up. Let’s hope they continue their support for future EMStocks, and that their generous support bears financial fruit. They deserve it.

If you’re making plans for an EMS conference to attend in 2009, make serious plans for next year’s EMStock. Nowhere else will you be able to find such an impressive cadre of nationally-known speakers, great entertainment and unique atmosphere for the same $20 registration fee. These guys will certainly attest to that:

Photo by Kelly Grayson

EMStock Registration:

On-site camping: N/C

Food: Wander up to the nearest grill and grab a plate.

Great EMS education and entertainment: N/C

Adult beverages: Traded for entertaining war stories.

Sharing EMS fellowship over a redneck beer cooler: PRICELESS

See y’all at EMStock 2009!

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