It's hard to know what to expect from a new trade exhibition, so when I arrived at the first-ever Emergency Services Show at London's Royal Horticultural Halls, it took a few seconds for me to realise that the police incident van outside wasn't a sign of some nefarious goings-on, but just the first exhibit in what may well become a major industry show.
Not that the police were the only ones on the scene; entering the hall, it became clear the fire and ambulance services were also down on the ground, along with secondary responders such as the Health Protection Agency and around 100 industry exhibitors.
The show, which was organised by Modern Media Communications and ran from 12-13 October, originated as a way to improve understanding and interaction between the various response teams during emergencies. It featured a series of conferences and talks as well as an exhibition area.
But despite the bombings in London last year and the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, the catalyst for the exhibition's creation wasn't terrorism, but an unfortunate sea mammal.
Bringing people together
David Brown, director of Modern Media Communications, explained: "The concept of this event was formed back in January, when a whale became stranded in the Thames river in London. You could see on the news channels that several agencies were there even though there was nothing for them to do."
The whale died, but what David saw on television that day gave him the idea to create an exhibition that would create a focal point for improving links between the services. But it wasn't easy.
"It's been a real rollercoaster eight months," he said. "We didn't know if we could pull it off in eight months because we had to get a venue, get the subcontractors in place and pull together a strong conference to make sure that the right numbers of people would come.
"It's odd thinking that back in February we were back at my kitchen table thinking: 'right, shall we do this, how do we do it and will it work?'"
The end result was a show that combined an exhibition area, two days of presentations and -for the first time at such an expo - a special section that would allow second-tier responders like the RSPCA and Highways Agencies to explain to visitors how they fit into the complicated world of emergency response.
The exhibition certainly seemed to get off to a good start; at noon on the first day of the show, David said: "It's going well: it's nice and busy out there, it's got a great atmosphere and, most importantly, we've had some positive feedback from the visitors. I can't ask for much more."
Making an exhibition of themselves
Peter S Barton, CBRN associate at fabric specialist WL Gore & Associates, was one of the show's happy exhibitors.
He said: "I had some reservations when I came this morning as it's the first time the show's taken place, so we weren't sure whether people would come through the door, but the time now is 2:30 and I can't honestly say that I've stopped talking all day."
Caroline Walton, sales and marketing executive at 3M, a major safety solutions provider that was advertising its reflective materials and tapes, was also impressed - although she was not quite as rushed off her feet as Peter.
She explained: "We've had fewer visitors than we thought we would, but the quality of those visitors has been high. It's also useful to us because many of our existing customers are here, so it's good to be able to meet up with them and find out what they're up to.
"It's also brilliant as a forum for networking; we don't sell direct to the police, we sell via garment manufacturers, so it allows the end users to see where their uniforms come from and allows us to make contact with the whole supply chain."
But some exhibitors did raise concerns. Uniforms & Workwear Ltd was at the show to exhibit its range of workwear as well as its new body armour selection from Sioen.
Pauline Hinkley, director of the company, said: "The hall's lovely, but the logistics of actually getting things into here were a little bit difficult. It was hard to find parking space, which is a problem when you have to bring your merchandise in by car. Finding a suitable parking space did add to the cost of the day."
However, once the stall was set up, the company did enjoy a good flow of visitors. "We've had quite a few interesting requests from all kinds of people," Pauline said. "We've spoken to ambulance services, private ambulances, security companies - all kinds of different organisations."
While some were entirely pleased with the mixture of visitors they received, others noted that certain areas of business seemed to be slightly lacking in representation. Richard Burns is the police and military business director for Cosalt:Ballyclare, which was advertising its fire and police uniforms.
He said: "We do seem to have more fire representatives than police or ambulance people. In fact, I don't think I've seen a police person all morning. And because the Integrated Clothing Project (ICP) is running, a lot of fire people are putting things to one side while it is decided."
However, he added that they had experienced a great deal of general interest at their stall and that they had enjoyed particularly heavy footfall in the periods when the show's talks convened for breaks and lunch.
"I like to go to shows with conferences attached," he said, "the conference gets people in to the hall and the set-up means that you can have a little rest, then enjoy a flood of people during the breaks, then have another rest."
It's hard to deny that the conferences, which looked at issues including pre-emptive emergency planning and the restructuring of the ambulance service as well as a talk by one of the members of the 7 July Review Committee, were a big attraction for visitors. But for some exhibitors, they proved to be something of a problem.
Roger Startin is joint managing director of Bristol Uniforms Ltd and was at the show to display the company's range of uniforms and PPE.
He commented: "The conferences pull the crowds in here and then pull them away again so you get a blast of people then quiet periods.
"It's better to have a regular flow - there's nothing worse than seeing someone who is interested in your stall walk past you because everyone on your stall is talking to someone else and there's nobody left to deal with them."
Jonny Hall, commercial director of flame retardant and insulated clothing company Extreme Clothing Solutions, agreed.
"There were surges earlier in the day," he said, "but we'd rather have a steady flow right through the day, because when the visitors come in during the short gaps between conferences, they tend to rush around the room. It means we don't get the time we would like with them."
However, both companies agreed that the exhibition had been worthwhile, with Roger from Bristol Uniforms pointing out that they had mostly spoken direct to purchasing officers, and Extreme Clothing having already received one order.
To be continued?
On the whole, then, the response to the first Emergency Services Show was positive. So does David have any plans to organise another one any time soon? That, he said, remains to be seen: "I certainly hope so, but first we have to get feedback from the exhibitors and visitors. This whole thing has got to be led by the industry."
One person who will certainly be at any future Emergency Services Shows is Tony McCaugherty, European sales manager of Reflexite. He said: "I was half expecting it to be a conference/seminar where everyone leaves and we have lots of dead time, so I was really relieved to have lots of people come up to us and say that they actually came specifically for the exhibition.
"It's been a long time since London's held this type of event - and it's about time as well, I suppose - but I think they should give it two or three years before the next one.
"I think that one of the reasons that some of these shows fade away is because they happening every year and people don't necessarily launch something new every year to make it worthwhile.
"But if it's held again, I will definitely come back here. Definitely. I'm really pleased with how the show has gone."