By Anne Gagliano
It’s hard to describe what makes FDIC so special, to put into words what you must feel and experience to truly understand, but I’ll try. I’m not even a firefighter, but I’ve lived with one for more than half my life, so I know his nature as well as my own. Through him I vicariously feel like a firefighter at times, most especially when I get to go with him to this mighty event.
FDIC is somewhat like a high school reunion. No, I take that back, it’s more like a family reunion. Though not genetically related, firefighters immediately connect like family because there is something in the blood that binds them together; you feel at home when you walk among them.
The energy in Indianapolis is palpable, the air electric, the excitement contagious. Firefighters gather here from all over the United States and from other countries as well. The whole town is awash with their boisterous, exuberant presence; you see them walking in small cadres proudly wearing their department t-shirts as they move up and down the streets that line the convention center. They have gathered here for two reasons: to celebrate being firefighters and to learn from the best instructors in the nation.
My husband Mike and I arrived in Indianapolis Sunday evening. We’d arisen at 3:00 a.m., driven two hours to SeaTac Airport, flown on two separate flights through four time zones, and arrived by 5:00 p.m., exhausted. It’s an all-day sucker for us Seattleites to fly anywhere east of the Rockies. But as soon as we get to “Indy” as we call it, our spirits lift at the sight of the familiar streets, and exhaustion is quickly forgotten. We’re “home,” among family now, and we’re anxious to see them. We know we’re about to have an incredible week of encouragement and reconnection.
Sunday night we have a low-key dinner with our dear buddy and Mike’s teaching partner, Captain Mike Dugan of the Fire Department of New York. Correction: He’s not just a buddy or a partner; he’s family. It’s so good to see him!
Monday morning Mike rises willingly to attend an early class; nowhere else are folks more delighted to sit in on classes than firefighters are at FDIC! I don’t know how he does it because we’re still on Pacific Time—7:00 a.m. here is 4:00 a.m. back home. I go back to sleep—way back to sleep. I’m dead to the world when the phone rings a few hours later, a very loud hotel phone. I jump up startled and disoriented by the dark and unfamiliar room. My feet hit the floor as I lunge for the phone, and down I go. My ankle crunches beneath my weight, then gives way completely. I’m now writhing in agony, clutching a throbbing, swelling ankle as the phone rings on, unanswered. What happened? My foot was asleep—something that’s never happened to me before—and I must have put it down wrong. Oh no, now what am I going to do? Anyone who’s ever been to FDIC knows it requires lots of walking—record breaking amounts by the end of the week—and here I lay, first day out of the gate, unable to stand. The pain of my crunched, twisted ankle is nearly unbearable; it has already grown to twice its normal size, the swelling going all the way down into my toes. I don’t know if I can even get a shoe on!
I call down to the desk for ice and sit for a few minutes. I take some ibuprofen. Mike had left a message; he was the one who had called. We were meeting Diane Feldman (Executive Editor of Fire Engineering and “Boss Lady” of FDIC) for lunch—in about an hour!
I’m running late, but I finally hobble my way through the “habitrails,” or covered sky bridges, that connect our hotel like hamster tubes to the convention center. I limp to the bookstore and see Diane; she throws her arms around me in a warm embrace and greets me like an old friend, no, more like a sister. Diane loves firefighters as I do, and this makes me her family.
I am nearly crimson with shame at my tardiness as I explain the reason for it, which is because of sheer clumsiness. Diane, concerned, immediately offers to lend me her ankle wrap; she, too had twisted her ankle the day she arrived! My shame now turns to laughter, for I am with a fellow klutz, a “twisted sister,” and I am instantly put at ease. Family has that affect.
After a delightful lunch with Diane, we return to the Speakers Room, where we are reunited with more “family.” Eileen Brennan Cress, the legendary Tom Brennan’s beautiful daughter, who comes each year to present the Lifetime Achievement Award named after her father; the famous Kevin Shea, fellow Fire Life contributor and FDIC volunteer, who is both incredibly heroic and incredibly humble; Bobby Halton, the loving Editor in Chief of Fire Engineering, who has a kind word for everyone and somehow manages to be everywhere at once; and Ginger Mendolia, one of the hardest workers and sweetest ladies on the planet. It is so good to see them once again!
Mikey G. and Mikey D. do their Blog Talk radio show—live from FDIC. I later join them to speak about my Fire Life columns. I’m nervous; it’s one thing to do the show safely away from prying eyes in the security of my home, but here, in the midst of a crowd? But my Mike and Mike Dugan are pros, and they put me at ease. The surrounding noise of beeping moving trucks threatens to drown me out and throw me off, but the “can-do” attitude of firefighters all around me is contagious and strengthens my resolve.
We begin talking about the effects of trauma on firefighter marriages, and Mike Dugan bravely confesses its impact on his family after 9/11, the most traumatic event in American firefighter history. Heedless of any embarrassment, he tells the listeners it’s okay to seek professional counseling, as he did, if you find yourself bringing anger home to your family. Wow! I am both touched and impressed by his courageous transparency, for he is willing to lay it all out there if it will help a fellow firefighter who may be struggling with this same issue.
In that moment, Mike Dugan demonstrates what FDIC is all about: leaders gathering from all over to give firefighters strength and encouragement through shared experiences and collective wisdom mingled with loving support.
In my next column, I will continue with More Impressions of FDIC 2012, for it’s simply impossible to convey a week’s worth of treasures in just one column!
(Photo by Jim Duffy, FDIC 2012.)
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 26 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.