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Some people dread the thought of speaking to large groups of small children.  Their wiggling bodies and wandering minds are hard to reign in.  Most successful teachers have come to grips with the fact that their job consists of ‘knowledge imparter’ and ‘entertainer’ in equal parts.  Given that fact, there are many factors to consider as you prepare your presentation.

Prepare for your audience

You may think you know what the kids need to learn.  You may be planning on presenting the same information that you have shared for the last five, ten or fifteen years, because it has always worked in the past.  If that’s the case, you need to reconsider your preconceived ideas!  This audience is different than the one that you presented to fifteen years ago.  (In fact, this audience is different than the one that you presented to at a neighboring school yesterday.)  The key to a successful presentation is planning —and that begins with knowing your audience.  

Know the expectations of the group leaders or teachers

Explain your objectives and make sure that they match what you’re expected to cover.  Every group has a variety of prior knowledge.  Find out if they have had other speakers on fire safety, if they’ve read books or done a classroom study.   Ask the teacher about classroom signals and expectations, and learn about students with special needs.  Ask about cultural issues, available technology and other information about the students and the venue.

Setting up a program

Provide some hands-on activities, give students time to talk through scenarios, ask them to write about how they will use the information you’ve presented.

If you have different presenters going into multiple schools or classrooms, you need to make sure the message is consistent.  An outline or talking points can be helpful.  Don’t fall back on PowerPoint, especially with kids in the younger grades.  If you do use it for older kids, keep the word-count down and use pictures to tell the story.   It should enhance your presentation, not act as a notecard crammed with information.

Consider your use of technology and time

If you’re planning on showing videos or video clips, make sure you preview them, and consider the age of the video as well as the message. The message might be good, but old videos lose some credibility.  You also need to consider whether this is the best use of the limited time that you have.   If you’re planning on using technology, make sure you arrive early to set it up, and always have a backup plan in case it doesn’t work.

Set clear boundaries and set the stage

Define the difference between questions and stories. (I’ll have time for questions at the end; questions start with “I really want to know…”).  Outline your expectations regarding behavior (“Your teacher tells me that you always raise your hands, so I’ll expect you to do the same for me.”)  Asking them to sit quietly and even telling them how to sit will save time in the long-run.  (The ‘Indian-style’ of our childhoods is now referred to as “sit on your pockets” or “criss-cross applesauce.”) After you set boundaries, follow up consistently. If you allow one child to blurt out an answer or share a story, you will find yourself confronted by a whole group of kids doing the same.

Consider how and where you are presenting. For instance, don’t stand in front of the fire truck unless you are talking about it.  Kids are visual sponges; they constantly soak up whatever they see.  If you have an important message to share with them, do that in an environment they’re visually accustomed to.  They will be more focused on you in their classroom because you are the “new thing” there.  When you move outside and put a big fire truck in front of them, the truck is something new.  The novelty of that big, bright truck, even with the doors closed, will drown out anything you have to say. 

If you plan on standing, make sure there is ample room between you and the first row of kids, so you won’t appear to be looming over them — that can be threatening, especially if you put on firefighting gear.  The best thing to do is get as low as you can while still maintaining eye contact with the back row.  If you’re presenting to a small group, consider sitting in a circle — or you could sit in a chair.  If they are sitting in chairs, it’s okay for you to stand, but again — allow buffer space.  

Understand the age group you are presenting to!  Consider their attention span, comprehension and vocabulary level.  Modify your message – talk to them rather than over or under them.  Kids’ attention spans run in waves.  Your goal is to keep as many kids as possible focused on you, and find ways to pull those who disengage back to attention when you have an important point to make.  Ask questions to keep them engaged, and give them time to answer.  If they aren’t answering your question, they might not understand it — or it could be that they don’t comprehend the message you’re sending.  

A few more quick tips

Introduce a limited amount of “new” information, based on the age level of the group you are presenting to.  Generally, if they’re five, keep your new information to five points or less.  Start by brainstorming with them, or listing what they already know, and play off that information.  Anything that they list would be considered prior knowledge.  Make sure you discuss the items they list. Don’t assume that because they say “stop, drop and roll,” they know that it applies only when their clothes are on fire.

Consider your stance on “scare tactics.”  How much is enough or too much?  This is something you may want to discuss as a department, or with the children’s teacher.  A story or picture that you think sends home the message may overwhelm young children.

Check in with the teacher from time to time.  Teachers can tell when things are going downhill and help before the situation becomes hopeless.

Every public education event is a public relations event.  Your presenters are the fire department to young audiences.  Make sure that you choose the right people, and that they are confident in sending the message the right way.

If it’s fun, they’ll remember it.

Decide what you want your students to remember.  Make the important information fun for them.  Often students go away with a lasting memory of a trivial fact because it was presented as part of a silly story, or because it was “off the wall.”  Check the thank-you notes you receive.  If they mention that they learned that firefighters wear different colored helmets more than they mention that they need to check their smoke alarms or have a meeting place, you need to adjust your presentation.

There are many successful programs out there.  Don’t throw away everything you’re doing.  Make small adjustments with each presentation until you find what works for you and your department’s message.  Remember that everyone learns differently, and integrate as many learning styles into your presentation as possible. 

The more time you spend preparing and practicing, the more confidence you’ll have in yourself and your presentation.  Remember to read over your feedback, even those thank-you cards, and modify your presentation to be more successful next time.

Read the last article:
Using Storytelling to Make Your Fire Messages Stick: 

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Comment by Tom Kiurski on January 6, 2014 at 2:11pm

Nice article that hit a lot of good points to consider.  Well done!

Comment by Mark vonAppen on December 28, 2013 at 10:34am

An outstanding post that has broad-based applications.  It applies to everyday presentations, including those that you make to your most fickle and restless group, your fellow firefighters.  Good stuff Becki White!

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