Meet the behind-the-scenes fire inspector for Anaheim’s throng-filled trade shows


The exhibit hall is a mass scene of organized chaos as merchants prepare for the opening day of the biggest show of the year at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Forklifts beep above the incessant ripping of tape off boxes as folks scramble to unpack and ready stuff for their booths.

The afternoon before the opening of Natural Products Expo West of the 39th-annual show — the world’s largest natural, organic, and healthy products event – Anaheim Fire & Rescue Fire Trade Show Inspector Desiree Johannessen walks the floors, clutching her ever-present radio and cell phone.

Since January, she’s been working almost every weekend to prepare for the show, scouring blueprints of floor plans to check such things as aisle width, general flow, and making sure exits aren’t obstructed.

As exhibitors set up their booths, Johannessen makes sure proper permits have been pulled and that certificates have been issued by people licensed to treat materials such as fake grass and faux plants to make them fire resistant.

The public probably doesn’t give it much thought, but staging a convention requires an army of people working behind the scenes.

Anaheim Fire & Rescue Fire Inspector Desiree Johannessen talks about the responsibilities of overseeing the opening of an expo at the Anaheim Convention Center.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

And Johannessen, a 25-year veteran of AF&R, is kind of the cool-headed general making sure all the fire-code rules are being followed before the doors open and the masses swarm in.

In fact, the doors won’t open until Johannessen, whose official title is Fire Inspector II, and the show manager give the OK.

It’s all about making sure safety comes first.

“It looks like a complete disaster right now,” says Johannessen, 51, who has been an Anaheim fire inspector for 19 years. “But tomorrow morning when we come in, it will be amazing. The carpet will be laid and everything will be clean and the aisles will be clear. It’s amazing how this whole transition happens overnight.”

Although there have been a few small electrical fires that have broken out at Anaheim trade shows over the years, there have been no major incidents – thanks to people like Johannessen.

On this afternoon, Johannessen is working with AF&R colleague and fellow Fire Inspector Alexandra Solano. They question a man at a booth who has compressed gas for cooking. Propane is regulated at trade shows, and the man promises to get the necessary paperwork as soon as possible.

He is polite.

If things get tense, Johannessen will summon the show manager and exhibit manager to intercede.

“I think most people are nice and I try to treat people as such,” Johannessen says. “The way I approach someone is, I’ll say, ‘Hi, my name is Desirée and I’m with the fire department. I just want to let you know I’m going to need the flame- retardant certificate. Here’s my business card. Call the manufacturer or your office and then email the certificate to me.”

Tamiko Tinker, an Event Manager with the City of Anaheim who is working with Johannessen on Natural Products Expo West, praises her.

“She’s a consummate professional,” Tinker says. “She’s awesome to work with. She’s flexible and even-keeled. She stays calm and collected.”

Johannessen fell into her job by fluke.

When she was in her early 20s and working nights as a makeup artist in Hollywood, she took temporary jobs through an agency during the day. She landed a job as Senior Secretary for the Fire Marshal with Anaheim Fire & Rescue.

“That job was supposed to be one week,” Johannessen says.

She was intrigued by the fire service and decided to go back to school to take some relevant classes.

“I came back to work (at the fire department) and then I said, ‘You know what, I think I want to have a career in the fire department,’” Johannessen says. “I found it to be really interesting.”

AF&R employs a total of seven fire inspectors, each of whom has a specialty.

“I used to be the coordinator for the Honda Center, Anaheim stadium, and all events and trade shows in the city,” Johannessen says. “As we have grown and this facility has expanded twice, I now handle trade shows at the Anaheim Convention Center and throughout the resort area.”

Johannessen loves her job.

“I mean, it has its moments – obviously, this show is very overwhelming,” she says. “It can be overwhelming, just the amount of people and responsibility. I’d say the thing that I like most about my job is, No. 1, I’m a people person. And it’s always different.

“Even with this show coming back year after year, it’s an ever-changing, evolving industry. It’s never the same. And I like challenges. I do kind of like pressure. I think I work well under pressure.”

Gianna Zuffante, a trade show coordinator for Nationwide Displays, has interacted with Johannessen a lot.

“She’s wonderful and super helpful,” Zuffante says.

Typically, when she is inspecting trade shows, Johannessen logs 5 to 8 miles per day.

“One day I walked 15 miles,” she says.

Earlier, while sitting in a small space in the Managers’ Office at the Anaheim Convention Center, Johannessen pointed to a tape measure on her desk.

“You know how police officers carry a weapon?” she asks. “This is my weapon. If I pull  a tape measure, (stuff ) is getting real.”

Johannessen works much more with employees of the Anaheim Convention Center than she does with her colleagues at AF&R.

She texts and is on the phone a lot.

“It’s non stop,” says Johannessen, whose typical routine is to hit the gym in the morning before work and stay fueled drinking iced coffee and water and eating healthy snacks and home-cooked meals.

Once a trade show opens, Johannessen will stick around a bit to regulate certain booths.

“We will continue to tell (non-complying) exhibitors, ‘Hey, if we don’t have this by whatever, you know, noon, then it has to come down or it has to come down now,’” Johannessen says.

But the bulk of her work is conducted in the weeks leading up to a convention.

Over the years, Johannessen has built relationships with the major general service contractors who stage conventions.

“When I go on the floor, I know who these guys are and they know who I am,” she says. “We’re all working together. This show is going to leave, but many of these same individuals are going to be here for the next show.”

Being very organized and having the ability to multitask are key kills for Johannessen to thrive.

Single and with no children, the Fullerton resident loves to entertain at home and travel.

She loves Italy but currently is focusing on seeing the U.S.

There’s one country she hasn’t been to yet.

“I’m Danish,” said Johannessen, who grew up in California. “I need to go to Denmark!”