What I said to a graduating class of firefighters

By: Dena Ali, Battalion Chief, Raleigh (N.C.) Fire Department

Battalion Chief Dena Ali delivering keynote address to graduating class of firefighters. (Photo/Dena Ali)

I recently had the distinct honor of delivering a keynote to the 13th Graduating Class of the Wake County (N.C.) Fire Academy. Thank you, Brad Pace, academy coordinator and training specialist at Wake County Fire Services and Emergency Management.

I couldn’t think what to say for about two months but then it came to me in a rush. I trust you will find it was worth your time to give it a read! So, here we go!

If you don’t already know this, you can say you heard it here first. You are going to spend about 80% of your time running medical calls, and 90% of those will not really need you and your medical skills. But those 10% will remind you daily that you and your skills matter.

For example, I have kept a friendship with one of my first cardiac “saves.” Since going into cardiac arrest while running at N.C. State University, Spencer Shell has fully recovered, married, and is now the father of two beautiful girls. Every year at Christmas, his family stops by the firehouse with Christmas cards. I doubt they know how meaningful their annual visits are. And not just because they bring Starbucks gift cards, but because they remind me that what I do matters, and the better I am at my career the better chance others will have to live. It’s a constant reminder to be confident in my skills and brilliant in the basics.

My Top 10 Tips for a Long, Healthy, and Prosperous Career

These are what I believe are ten pieces of advice for you that can help you to have a long, healthy, and satisfying career, one that hopefully will lead to a long, healthy, and satisfying retirement.

You have one body. With our life expectancies ever increasing, this one body of yours is going to have to last. So, take care of it. Exercise, jog, run, lift weights, do CrossFit, anything, just take care of your body and your heart. The grandmother you respond to in 15 years, who is trapped by a fire on the third floor at 2:00 am, is going to need you to be able to physically pull her out without you yourself having a medical emergency. Oh yeah, and with you, will be a brand new super fit twenty-something firefighter, and trust me, you will want to keep up with them.

You are going to work with old heads who say: “You only have so many heart beats, don’t waste them on exercise.” Those guys are insane, ignore them!

Please don’t allow yourself to end up on disability or with coronary heart disease because you didn’t take the time to work out or eat healthy. PLEASE TAKE CARE FOR YOURSELF!

Every skill you learned in the academy is a perishable skill. If you do not practice those skills, you will lose them. You will struggle to mask up quickly, you will not be able to advance the hoseline efficiently, you will not be able to force a door, you will not be able to search low, and you will not know how to use the RIT pack.

These skills are important. Seconds matter. Imagine being face down in a swimming pool waiting for those seconds that matter. That is why seconds matter.

“Comfort is the enemy of growth. Never allow yourself to become comfortable.”

Aaron Fields, firefighter for the City of Seattle and the OG of the Nozzle Forward

People are jealous of those who are doing better than them. If you do all the right things, excel, and bring positive energy to your firehouse, you will have critics. Don’t worry about the haters, don’t let them slow you down.

Unfortunately, those who are not happy with themselves tend to struggle to find honor in those who are. Don’t let the critics slow you down. Because not only will you diminish yourself and change your values, but you will also give them something else to criticize.

Choose what the critics criticize, and if it’s that you are pursuing excellence, I can promise you will sleep well and inspire others.

We all need inspiration. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. I met Chief Vincent Dunn of the FDNY recently, and he told me that as a new firefighter, he just wanted to get 10 years on, then when he had 10 years on, he wished he had 20 years on, then when he had 20 years, he wished he were new again. Know that it doesn’t matter what your rank is, you can inspire others through your example and your energy.

Regardless of your present rank, or the rank you achieve in the future, respect those below you and above you equally. Remember how you are treated as a probationary firefighter, make note of how it makes you feel, and choose to replicate those who motivated and inspired you. Always show respect to others, regardless of whether it is to the service staff or the fire chief; everybody deserves the same treatment.

Know that you are prejudiced, biased, and privileged. So am I. We all are. Take a step back from your first thoughts and opinions. Give folks an opportunity to prove you wrong. The only person you can change is you, so be hard on yourself, grow, learn, and model the behaviors you wish to see in others. Practice kindness, respect, and keep an open mind.

Know that all your experiences have led you to where you are today. The more struggles you face, the more compassion you develop, the more connected to others you will become. Empathy is intuitive, but it’s also something you can work on intellectually. Look to connect with others more than you seek to be better than others.

Don’t seek perfection. Perfection is not attainable and can lead to a host of negative outcomes. Seek excellence and progress and be OK with making and owning your mistakes.

Read Next: ‘Be a not-knower’: The power of leading with humility

Be micro ambitious. Be enthusiastic about whatever is right in front of you. Stop listening to those who tell you that you need to know where you want to be in 5, 10, or even 30 years, and start being dedicated to who you are today. Love those in your life, check on people you haven’t heard from in a while, send postcards, and focus on being the best probationary firefighter and EMT that you can be. Those who tell us we need to know where we are going to be in 10 years forget that by looking too far ahead, you can tend to miss that spark in your peripheral.

Experience is more difficult than ever to come by. So, it’s imperative that you supplement yourself with realistic training and consistent preparation. This includes reading! Take it from somebody who used to hate reading: If you are not a reader, BECOME a reader. Develop the habit of reading a little every day, and trust me, the dividends of doing so will be priceless.

“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”

Marine General (Ret.) Jim Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of State

Know that it is OK to not be OK. It is just not OK to ever suffer in silence. Please, know that in your career, you are going to experience the “ups and downs” that life throws at us. Some of you will become depressed, some of you will lose people you love, some of you will experience illness, and some of you will struggle with addictions. No matter what you experience, know that you are worthy, and I promise you, you are not alone in your struggles.

As first responders, sometimes, we feel that we owe it to our communities to be stronger, and when we suffer or struggle, we feel guilty. Know that is a common feeling, and often the main contributor to first responder suicide. If you are ever struggling, please, please, please, reach out for professional assistance!

Chief Ali’s Summary of her speech (Original graphic by Robert Avsec)

Note from Chief Avsec: Chief Ali’s graduation address was so good, and a bit long, so read the “2nd half,” Asking for Help with Your Mental Health is Not a Weakness

About the author

Dena Ali is a battalion chief with the Raleigh (N.C.) Fire Department. Prior to becoming a firefighter, she served five years as a police officer. She has a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina Pembroke, where her research focused on firefighter suicide. Ali is an adjunct instructor with the NFA and the founder and director of North Carolina Triangle Peer Support. She is an avid fitness enthusiast and cyclist and was recently named the 2022 Remarkable Women Winner for Central North Carolina.

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].