Every year around 34,000 firefighters from all around the world travel to the fine City of Indianapolis, Indiana for the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC). This is often referred to as “Disneyland for Firefighters;” a week’s worth of education, mentoring, networking and friendship. This year was only my second time attending this amazing event; however, this year was very different. This year, I was lucky enough to have been selected as an FDIC presenter in addition to being selected as one of three recipients of the Pennwell/International Society of Fire Service Instructors Emerging Instructor Scholarship. It was a tremendous honor to be one of the first recipients of this scholarship!
This article summarizes my FDIC experience from the perspective of a rookie instructor, sharing my experience with the selection process, the lessons I learned while preparing my first national conference presentation, and the advice that hopefully will help you accept the challenge to apply yourself.
Originally when I noticed the call for presenters for FDIC 2018, I brought up the idea of applying to a friend of mine who had also expressed an interest in applying. We both made the decision to apply, with the expectation that we would not even be selected. FDIC follows an annual cycle and the call for presentations typically opens the week after the event concludes. The FDIC Advisory Board reviews the applications, with acceptance or rejections letters being sent out during the month of August. Consider yourself lucky as they receive approximately 1,000 proposals every year and only accept a couple hundred of them.
I did not have a class prepared when I initially submitted my FDIC proposal. I had an idea and an outline, but nothing that I had ever presented before at a national conference. The whole concept of my FDIC proposal was to share with my students how I do my job; after all, this is my own story, how hard can it be share this story on the national stage? I found out exactly how challenging this was on April 25, 2018, the day I was fortunate enough to be a presenter at FDIC. Ultimately, I learned that presenting on the national stage is a rewarding experience which I hope to receive the opportunity to accomplish again in the future.
I remember the specific day in August of 2017 when I started seeing multiple social media posts from fellow fire service brothers and sisters congratulating each other on their proposal being selected for FDIC. I recall refreshing my email multiple times patiently waiting until it was finally there, my response from the FDIC 2018 Manager. I was anxious and terrified at the same time and didn’t even want to open the email once received. Peeling my eyes open to read the first words of the email: “Congratulations! I am pleased to inform you that your proposal has been selected as a classroom session for FDIC International 2018, to be held April 23-28, 2018.” To say I was in complete shock is bit of an overstatement! I never thought in a million years that my proposal would be selected. I felt a sense of relief and thought the hard part was over; but boy was I wrong.
Creating my proposal was actually the easiest part of the whole FDIC experience for me. I have been an Instructor for a few years, presenting a set curriculum, either through my Fire Department’s Training Division or from the New York State curriculum at my part time instructor job. I initially didn’t expect to have difficulty getting up in front of the room on the national stage; instead, I found developing my own curriculum and lesson plan causing me significant anxiety. I started and stopped, scrapped ideas, added ideas, over and over, until it was almost time to present at the conference. I sent my original draft presentation outline to a few friends and other instructors to review and ask for their valued feedback. I utilized most of their ideas and added them in to my presentation. Some of the suggestions were as simple as changing the font size on my PowerPoint slides to removing whole entire slides and scrapping them from my presentation. I reformatted my slides from dark backgrounds to a light background and even considered the suggestion of limiting the PowerPoint presentation to a lecture-based presentation. It was approximately two weeks before the conference that I finally felt like I had a finished product. This was both a relief and a problem at the same time.
I am very fortunate to have a close group of Firehouse kitchen table friends that I can share ideas as well as stresses about my upcoming presentation. It was these friends who “talked me off the ledge” so to speak, a few times in the days leading up to the conference. I seriously considered not getting on the plane. I am very thankful that the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) assigned me a mentor who helped me considerably during this entire process. This mentor gave me countless hours of her time to assist with fine tuning my presentation prior to the event and even showed me the ropes during FDIC. Upon arrival, I met two close friends at the airport and we ended up carpooling together to Lucas Oil Stadium. The veteran speaker of the group showed us around in addition to aiding with conference registration and locating the AV and speaker room. My head was spinning all day with a combination of nervous anticipation, excitement, and the privilege of presenting at the largest fire conference in the world. Tuesday evening started off with a great group of mentors over dinner followed by the ISFSI membership networking event before a night cap with some brothers from around the country at one of the fine watering holes in Indianapolis.
Wednesday began early with a nice breakfast meet and greet in my hotel lobby, an impromptu last-minute event that turned out to be a great bit of fellowship and laughs. My nerves were really kicked into high gear Wednesday; I didn’t need my morning coffee to get my heart pumping that day. I had a brief meeting and then headed over to the always impressive and motivating opening ceremonies; a two-hour program kicked off by Chief Bobby Halton, a leader who never fails to inspire me. The classroom sessions start right after opening ceremonies, leaving me a short, few hours before it was my turn. I was a physical wreck; my heart was racing, I was sweating and had dry-mouth. I decided it was best to head back to the hotel, review my PowerPoint presentation, rehearse a little before it was show time and call my wife who gave me some great last-minute advice and reminded me to eat something before I started. I had a quick bite to eat and decided to take an hour nap, shower and head back over to prepare. The nap actually never happened; I laid there sweating with my heart was racing… I could not even relax!
My hands were shaking, my mouth was dry, but it was go time – no turning back now! The class before mine was packed, with several of the students approaching the instructor afterwards to talk. There is only about 15 minutes between classes, but as a rookie, I didn’t want to distract the previous Instructor and I definitely didn’t want to touch their gear, but I needed to get my equipment set-up for my presentation. I wasn’t paying much attention to the room as I was setting up my equipment for my presentation. I didn’t know how many people were coming in, and once I finally looked up, I was shocked to see an almost full room for my presentation! I thought, why in the world would all of these fire service brothers and sisters come listen to me?
Prior to beginning my presentation, I thanked everyone who had helped me up to this point, followed by a thank you to Pennwell and ISFSI for offering me this tremendous honor. Initially, I felt confident when I started my presentation, moving right along, until a sudden a wave of nerves came over me like I have never experienced before. I felt like Jim Carrey in the movie Me, Myself and Irene. My mouth was dry, and I was searching for the right words. I hoped it would pass soon or I was in going to be in some serious trouble. My timing was off, based on my practice, and I couldn’t figure out why; I thought I was moving right along. I think my nerves were obvious to the people in the room, but I wasn’t stammering or fumbling my words at all. Once or twice throughout my presentation, I actually wanted to quit as I didn’t think I could go on! I learned to just slow down, take a breath, grab a sip of water and collect my thoughts. One great piece of advice that was shared with me was to find a friendly face in the audience and focus on him or her while continuing to scan the room and make eye contact with other students. When you begin to struggle, find that face you recognize and imagine it’s just you and a friend having a conversation.
Once I closed in on the final few slides, I realized I was ahead of my presentation time and couldn’t figure out why. I came to the realization that I had “skipped” a whole section on building and training my crew! It did not even occur to me how I missed approximately 12-15 minutes’ worth of content in my presentation as this material was information I really wanted to cover in my presentation. A more polished instructor may have been able to rebound and ad lib to work the information in, but I’m not there yet. As I wrapped up my presentation, an incredible sense of relief overcame me as well as a sense of accomplishment; I did it! I don’t think I killed it by any sense of the word, but I made it through my presentation. I was officially an FDIC presenter!
As students enter your class, they are handed an evaluation form to fill out and at the conclusion of the class, the instructor is given the opportunity to review the evaluation forms. I was worried about reading my evaluations and actually considered not even reviewing them over fear of rejection. I’m glad I did though, as I received some great feedback and ideas on how to improve my presentation for the next time I present. Most people, including myself, don’t handle constructive criticism very well; however, feedback received from students, both positive or negative, is an invaluable resource that we as instructors should capitalize on.
With time still available to submit your proposal for FDIC 2019, I want to share with you some of the lessons I learned and offer some advice to those of you who have been thinking about submitting their proposal to present:
- JUST GO FOR IT! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I put in expecting to be rejected; and, if I was rejected, I had an immediate goal for the following year. If I was accepted, I would be awarded the highlight of my fire service career.
- Practice, practice and practice! Get out and practice your presentation, call your local chief officers and offer to give the class for free. When you do this, bring feedback forms for your students, and ask them what they liked or didn’t like. Use this feedback to fine tune your presentation, and then add or subtract things as needed. This is my number one regret. I had rehearsed my class, but never with an actual audience. This valuable feedback and insight would have helped me immensely.
- Utilize the fire service to your advantage. The fire service family is amazing. Share your drafts, notes or ideas with others, and ask for their help; have other presenters review your presentation and ask them what they think of your presentation. One of the best parts of my whole FDIC experience was putting faces to names of brothers and sisters with whom I’ve communicated with online, via email or on the phone but had never met face to face. Networking and fellowship is an advantage to attending and presenting at a national conference, especially when you can sit down and talk face to face over coffee or a cold beer.
- Take it all in! I was only able to travel Tuesday to Thursday, even though the conference lasted the whole week. If your schedule permits, stay for the entire conference. The time goes by so fast, and you need time to process everything and enjoy the FDIC experience.
- And finally, GO FOR IT! I can’t say this one enough.
The ISFSI/Pennwell Scholarship opportunity is what really convinced me to submit my proposal for FDIC. In 2016, I initially set a five-year goal for myself to apply for this conference as a presenter. This scholarship opportunity was just the push I needed to go for it and to submit early. If you are not a member of the ISFSI, I urge you to join; the networking opportunities are endless, and every person I have encountered has been exceptional. My fellow ISFSI members were willing to give themselves to help me, some who I have possibly never met before. The same goes for the folks from Pennwell; I had dozens of questions, sent seemingly hundreds of emails and needed to be reminded about the things I hadn’t done yet. For example, my video promoting my presentation or booking my hotel and my flight, which I had to change twice. If you are on the fence about submitting your proposal for FDIC (or any other conference for that matter), I hope my story encourages you to just go for it! Get your proposal submitted and I look forward to attending your presentation someday on the national stage at the largest fire conference in the world!