Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on May 1, 2015.

Pondering the Puzzle
Everything you always wanted to know about the process of evaluating, choosing, and organizing education sessions for the annual meeting. 

THE LARGE WHITEBOARD mounted on Stacey Moriarty’s office wall is covered with 134 color-coded magnets, each neatly labeled and organized into a grid. It looks like an art project gone awry, until Moriarty explains what it all means.

More In a Flash

Each magnet represents an education session to be given at the 2015 NFPA Conference + Expo, which will be held in Chicago June 22–25. The magnets are arranged by day and time, with the colors denoting one of 11 subject tracks—topics ranging from codes and standards to health care. Moriarty, the NFPA project manager tasked with putting together the conference education session schedule, has a number of variables to consider. She doesn’t want presentations in the same track to overlap, so that conference-goers interested in a particular area can attend as many sessions on the topic as possible. At the same time, she wants to stagger the end time of presentations to prevent logjams in halls and food lines.

“It’s a good thing I like jigsaw puzzles,” she says, glancing up at the magnets on her big board.

It’s early April at NFPA headquarters in Quincy, Massachusetts, and although the session schedule is still being tweaked, a massive amount of work has already been completed just to get these magnets up on the board. Last year, from June to September, 550 presentation proposals on topics as diverse as firefighting drones to motor coach fire safety streamed into NFPA from all over the globe. Each proposal was collected and sent to a group of nearly 50 people—a collection of NFPA staffers, technical committee members, industry experts, and NFPA membership section liaisons—who reviewed and rated each presentation proposal on a scale of one to five, with five being the most recommended for approval as an education session.

“To me a five presentation is on a timely topic, it’s an important issue, and it’s something there is lots of interest in,” says Robert Solomon, NFPA’s division manager of building fire protection and a member of the session selection committee. “And obviously it helps a lot if I’ve seen the presenter or presentation before and I know they’re really good.”

Casey Grant, executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation and another selection committee member, agrees that topical issues—whether it’s new technology, case studies on recent disasters, or otherwise—are what he looks for in a good presentation proposal. The inverse, however, can earn a quick rejection.

“Every once in a while you get a submission on a topic you’ve heard so many times—it’s been beaten senseless and you don’t need to hear about it again,” Grant says. “We also steer away from presentations that are like commercials. We need our presentations to be credible—NFPA is not out to support any individual product, nor do we want to allow anyone at our conference to do so.”

Once the ratings were completed and returned to Moriarty in early October, she calculated the average rating for each presentation and put them in order from highest to lowest. A couple weeks later, a group of NFPA staffers reviewed the ratings and hashed out which proposals to accept and which to reject.

Top 10 rated ed session proposals for the 2015 NFPA Conference + Expo

The Lac-Megantic Railway Disaster—A Town Destroyed and 47 Killed: Lessons Learned Wednesday, June 24, 8–9 a.m.
Green Building’s Impact of Fire Fighter Safety Monday, June 22, 8–9 a.m.
The Joint Commission Update Monday, June 22, 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
NFPA 13 2016 Changes (Three-Part Panel Discussion) Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, June 22, 23, and 24, 9:30–10:30 a.m.
When the Circus Comes to Town Wednesday, June 24, 9:30–10:30 a.m.
NFPA 4: Roles and Responsibilities Monday, June 22, 8–9 a.m.
Inside the Pipe—NFPA 25 Chapter 14 Explained Tuesday, June 23, 11 a.m.–noon
NFPA’s Combustible Dust Standards Tuesday, June 23, 9:30–10:30 a.m.
Addressing the Performance of Automatic Sprinkler Systems: NFPA 25 and Other Strategies Tuesday, June 23, 8–9 a.m.
Significant Changes to NFPA 70E—2015 Tuesday, June 23, 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m.

See the full list of education sessions for the 2015 NFPA Conference here.

Proposals with high average ratings—such as a presentation on the Lac-Megantic train disaster in Quebec, which had the highest average rating of 4.41—are virtual locks to be accepted. Presentations with scores around 3.5 are on the fence, while scores hovering around one or two stand little chance of acceptance.

“I take the top 100 highest-rated presentations and ask the committee members if there any that should not be included, either because of the presenter, the topic, etc.,” Moriarty explains. “On the flip side, I also ask, ‘Of those rejected initially, do any of you think something should be included?’”

The answer is usually no, but there are sometimes exceptions. For instance, a division head might make the case for a presentation that hits on a very important issue in that world that other members of the selection committee were not aware of, Moriarty says.

As one might expect, much of the meeting and debate centers on the group of presentations on the bubble, the ones in the 3.5 rating range. Whittling down the list was more difficult this year, Moriarty says, because the number of proposals increased and the number of time slots decreased in an effort to streamline the schedule. Of the 550 submissions received for the 2015 conference, only 134 presentations were accepted—about 24 percent. Leading up to the 2014 conference, NFPA received 528 proposals for 150 time slots, an acceptance rate of 28 percent. The quality of proposals this year was also very high, Moriarty says. The median rating for all presentation submissions this year was 3.15 out of five.

“A lot of these presentations scored really, really well,” Moriarty says. “Many were victims of volume—we just can’t fit them all.”

The current process for selecting presentations for the annual NFPA Conference + Expo evolved throughout the 1990s, says Grant, who has been involved in, and at times in charge of, choosing conference presentations since 1988. Prior to that, the NFPA Board of Directors had a subcommittee that reviewed and chose the educational session presentations to accept.

“We realized along the way that there was no reason the Board of Directors needed to be diving into that level of detail,” Grant says. “Since it switched over to being a staff activity in the 1990s, it has expanded to include even more staff and many more volunteers on technical committees. I think it’s an entirely appropriate, robust, and effective process.” 

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer for NFPA Journal.