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You Belong: Improving Leadership and Mental Health in the Fire House

Battalion Chief Dena Ali discusses how leadership sets the tone for mental health and resilience in the fire house.

Posted: Dec. 21, 2023

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The fire service is experiencing shortfalls in recruitment, issues with retaining firefighters and mental health challenges in the service. We must examine new ways to lead, take care of ourselves and each other.

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Listen online 33:09

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Estimated 21 min reading time.

Welcome to the USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I’m your host, Teresa Neal. The fire service is experiencing shortfalls in recruitment, issues with retaining firefighters and mental health challenges in the service. None of this is new information for anyone in a fire department.

We’ve all heard the saying insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. In order to see needed change, we must examine new ways to lead, take care of ourselves and each other. One of the leading voices in mental health, suicide and trauma is Chief Dena Ali. Chief Ali is a battalion chief with the City of Raleigh Municipal Government.

She has a Master of Public Administration from University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where she focused on understanding and preventing suicide. We’ve asked Chief Ali to come on the podcast to discuss psychological safety, leadership, and the effects stress, as well as poor leadership, have on the body.

Thanks for joining us today.

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

Thanks for having me. This is really an honor for me.

Teresa Neal

So, I’d like to start off talking about leadership. It has really changed over the years, and with different generations that we have in the fire service, they view leadership differently. You recently quoted Chief David Rhodes’ opening address at FDIC 2023 where he said...

“There’s really been little focus on mental health effects of poor leadership. We tend to talk about PTSD because we can blame that on an incident beyond our control, but we don’t want to talk about the root cause of the majority of the stress that causes us issues: organizational vindictiveness, discrimination, favoritism and exclusion.”

– Chief David Rhodes

That’s a great quote. I remember sitting in there when he said that. I was like, look at him. So why did this make such an impression on you?

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

Same. Like as soon as he said it, like, I felt it viscerally. Like, I felt every word, and you know, everything that he said, I was like, yes, yes, yes. Because I’ve experienced those things and I’ve experienced the heartache from those things.

However, the difficulty that I experienced, that so many other people experience, is we’re not talking about it, so we don’t understand it. It’s really easy to say first responders see bad things. PTSD is a military term from combat, so obviously it’s the calls, obviously it’s the trauma that affects us. And with that, we ignore all the other pieces of it that are so incredibly important.

And I’ve been researching this for several years now, and in my research, time and time again, it comes back to the value of community, to feeling safe. And what’s so fascinating — Bessel van der Kolk, who’s one of the leading researchers on PTSD, one of his quotes was, “Safety and terror are incompatible.”

And you feel most safe when in an environment where you’re safe and all the evidence that comes from that, from his work, Sebastian Junger’s work. He was a war reporter. He spent several years deployed with our troops and he comes back, and he shares the research that it’s not the bad things that we see.

And in fact, there is zero relationship between combat and suicide. It is the inability to connect that is the problem. And as leaders, you know, I’ve been a battalion chief a year now ...

Teresa Neal

Well, you can be a leader without being a battalion chief. And I’m sure you’re one of those already, so ...

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

Well, exactly.

And anybody can be a leader. You lead from where you are. But in the fire service, in my opinion, as you promote and you seek more rank, you get paid more. With that comes a responsibility, and we have to recognize the influence we have on people. And I’ve still got 10 years before I can retire, but I already recognize that my time is short.

It’s not about me anymore, it’s about the people that we’re bringing on. And my responsibility is not to me, but to them, and I think sometimes we forget that.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, I think we definitely do, when it comes to leadership, forget that when you are promoted, when you do have, you know, a higher pay grade or whatever, it doesn’t mean that you’ve arrived.

It means that your responsibility to the people around you is so much greater. When you see deficiencies, you don’t work around them. You address them, and you bring people up with you so that they can be successful because you will leave, and when you leave, you want your organization to stay, you know, viable and effective.

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

You want it better. I make mistakes all through my career. I’ve struggled, and so it’s my responsibility to make a change, like, put my foot down so the people coming behind me don’t have to follow. Either don’t make the mistakes I made or the pain I’ve experienced — they don’t need to endure it.

Teresa Neal

Right. So how does organizational stress affect the department?

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

So, there is, and we mentioned it, there’s this impression that it’s the calls. Constantly, it’s all we talk about, it’s the calls. And we forget how important it is to have this, like, effective, safe, cohesive environment. And in fact, now a lot of the research has found if you have an organization and several members have PTSD, it’s not a predictor of the trauma that these members have experienced.

That says more about organizational leadership. If you have members struggling, higher numbers of members struggling, it’s not about the variables they’re experiencing. It’s more about the leadership they’re under. So, organizational leadership is just so critically important because that is like almost when you have good leadership, that’s like the bond that keeps people connected, keeps them focused on mission and their ability to withstand trauma, adversity and move forward.

Teresa Neal

Yeah. There was recently on the Secret List, I think Billy Goldfeder shared a video, and it came out of California after a mass shooting event at one of the dance clubs. I think it was for Chinese New Year.

And so, the fire department responded in everything that they saw, in everything they had to work through with that. And it was really — the video was to discuss how exactly what you’re saying, how they all saw something incredibly difficult. That they will never forget those images. They’re blazed in their mind, but the fire chief knew enough to know that everybody’s going to say they’re OK, they’re fine, but they’re not fine. He wasn’t fine, so how could they be fine? And so, they really were intentional about talking about it with each other, everybody who worked on that scene, to talking about it, talking through it, and that it made better outcomes for those people afterwards.

Because they knew that, I think one of my questions farther along, but I can bring up, they knew they belonged. They belonged with them. And I know you had in one of your articles, you discussed belonging cues, but they knew they belonged together and that it, you know, that’s one of the things from the military, and I know it’s from you all too, is that we would always say, the reason why my battle buddy is my battle buddy is because we’ve had a shared experience. Not because we’re best friends, but we’ve had a shared experience and we all understand each other. So that’s the reason, that belonging. I belong to something bigger. It’s not just to me. I don’t have to deal with this alone.

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

And to take that 1 step further, as humans, we are wired to coregulate. So, after a difficult situation, we heal together, or we suffer together. So, when the leader can model vulnerability, like, “That was tough, I’m struggling, let’s talk about it, let’s take a little time to like, call home, you know, get some showers, relax and let’s move forward,” people can move forward. However, if a leader’s like, “Man, that was really tough. It’s overwhelming. We can’t move forward. You know, we all need to go see a mental health clinician. Go home.” Everybody’s going to actually struggle. So, with that coregulation, it’s about coming together, being honest about the experience, talking through it, and that helps people to heal to where you won’t always need high-level, you know, assistance. You can actually heal together, which is just fascinating and powerful. But when you think about the way humans have evolved, no human is going to live life without trauma or pain. It’s part of life. Like we are designed for stress. We are designed for struggle, but we’re also designed to coregulate and to go through struggle together and heal together.

Teresa Neal

And so, what can a leader do to change this? What can they do to help their department?

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

I think, first and foremost, is leaders just have to model a little bit of vulnerability. They have to model their imperfection. They have to model that they are impacted and affected, but also more importantly, they have to model, you know, how they practice self-care, how they take care of themselves.

Man, that was tough. Let’s talk about it. You know, I’m really struggling with that. I’m going to make an appointment with a clinician. Or boundary setting, taking time off when you need time off, relaxing. But I think to me the 2 biggest things leaders must do is just model vulnerability. You know, model their uncertainty at times, and that’s OK.

You don’t always have to be certain, especially when you’re pretending to be certain and you’re wrong and then model help seeking and taking care of yourself.

Teresa Neal

So, another one of your articles from Fire Engineering, you said, “If there‘s 1 factor to be blamed for poor mental health outcomes of our responders, it would be a lack of psychological safety.”

So, what is, in your words, psychological safety?

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

I love psychological safety. I know it’s like the new buzzword and I wish there was actually a different name for it because I think that people have a hard time wrapping their minds around it. So, in a nutshell, when people feel safe and connected with others, the defenses all relax, and people can just withstand more.

They’re comfortable. They get to be authentic. They get to be themselves. So, when you feel safe, you can connect. And when you connect, you aren’t going to be at risk for a lot of the poor mental health outcomes. So, psychological safety, in terms of the fire service, is just having an environment where people are allowed to be their true, authentic selves.

Meaning if they don’t know something, they can say, “Hey, I’m not sure about this. Help me.” Or when they make a mistake, they can say, “Oh man, I made a mistake.” We need to correct this without fearing that their head’s going to get chopped off. As opposed to the opposite, when you have a psychologically unsafe environment, that’s where people fear sticking their neck out. They fear mistakes. They feel like, you know, there’s not a connection between them and their leader.

So, their defenses are up. They’re looking out for, you know, protecting themselves, self-preservation, which we know that our bodies are wired either to go into fight or flight or in that rest and relax. And fight or flight protects us, but you can’t sustain it. If you stay in fight or flight, it’s like a vehicle where, you know, you rev the engine and you just keep your foot on the engine. What that does is that damages everything under the hood.

Whereas, you know, when you need to rev the engine, when you need to go, go. But when you need to relax, you get to preserve, you know, for the long haul. So, fight or flight is not something that we want to be in unless we need it. So, when you’re in a psychologically unsafe environment, you actually end up in fight or flight all day, looking out for hazards and risks.

And what’s fascinating about that is the science shows that when your body’s in fight or flight, you’re unable to be empathetic, you’re unable to connect. And like I said earlier, safety and terror are incompatible. So, what you want is that psychologically safe environment where people can connect with each other.

Where people feel safe. Because we’re all imperfect, we’re all going to make mistakes, we’re all going to take risks, and we should just be able to feel safe to do that, and we should be able to feel safe to speak up when we do make a mistake.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, you said in one of your articles, it said — something I found interesting from one of the articles was a lack of psychological safety was considered a persistent problem at NASA and was cited as a key contributor to both the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

Can you believe it? I mean, that’s how big of a deal it is. When I read that I was like, wow, you know, and it was because they had that environment that they were perfect, you know, and they expected people to believe they were perfect. So then if they had any questions or they weren’t sure about something, they were afraid to bring that forward.

Those are huge examples, but those kind of things happen all the time. You know, little disasters that we don’t always see.

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

And I think it’s important to cite, and I’m so glad NASA was able to recognize it, correct the problem and be honest. Because we all know that a lot of organizations, especially big organizations, you know, brush those things under the rug, they keep them in house and nobody else learns from it. So, I’m grateful that NASA was able to share that so we could learn. Because when you bring up psychological safety in fire service or in the military, people immediately kind of roll their eyes and they’re like, oh, that works for business, but that can’t work for us.

Like, you know, this is command and control, paramilitary, do what you’re told. But when you then realize NASA, like, very high performing and high risk, you know, high potential for disaster, when they have to incorporate psychological safety, that signals like, OK, we need to look into this. What is this?

And it was fascinating to learn that NASA had a performance culture where people had to be perfect and had to perform. And they lived in fear, and because of that, a simple O-ring, you know, created a disaster. And it’s amazing to me now how far they’ve come. I don’t know if you paid attention to the launch of Artemis, but it kept getting delayed.

And I’m sure we’ll find out exactly why later. But for me I was like, I know exactly what’s going on. They’re ensuring that everything’s right and somebody felt safe speaking up about a concern. So, for that reason, they’re OK delaying the launch. And I think that’s great just to see that improvement because it shows the change.

So now NASA has what they call a learning culture where they don’t care if you’re the highest-ranking person in the room or the lowest-ranking person in the room, speak up. And they want you to speak up. I listened to a podcast once and it was Adam Grant, his podcast, and he talked about psychological safety, and at the very end he had Admiral McRaven talk about 10 minutes.

And you know, Admiral McRaven is just one of the greatest leaders of our time. He led SEAL Team Six, again another high-performing group, high-performing team, and he talked about psychological safety. It was funny. He was like, I don’t know what that word means. But when I lead my teams, I want them to speak up because I’m not perfect.

And he said one of the things he does as a leader is, sometimes, he’ll purposely misspeak or purposely say something wrong to see if somebody will catch it and speak up. And if nobody speaks up, then he knows that he hasn’t created the environment that needs to be created. So, he encourages people speaking up, and I thought that was so awesome.

I thought that was so powerful to hear that, like, an admiral in the Navy leading SEAL Teams wants his people to tell him when he’s wrong.

Teresa Neal

Well, the other thing is I know a couple years ago maybe it was — I say couple; a couple to me could be 10, but time flies. But there was a rash of professional football players who ended up killing themselves or doing drastic things like, not killing themselves, but killing somebody else or having terrible accidents. And I thought, you look at people like that and you’re like, “Oh wow, they have all this money, and why would they be sad? Why would they do that?” And I think it’s what you were just saying about that, always being in fight or flight. You know, one of the gentlemen who actually went and got some help said, “You know, yeah, you’ve made it to the big leagues, but for the rest of your life or the rest of your career, you’re fighting to stay.”

So, you get hurt, you still show up. You don’t feel good, you still show up. Because if you don’t, somebody else is going to take your place. And so, you’re always in that constant looking, you know, over your shoulder. Am I doing this, right? People listening to me? Am I going to be able to do it? And it just wears people down so that they either self-medicate or, you know, we all have issues, and they could have an underlying issue they didn’t even realize that causes them to do that. This is that whole thing. And now you see with the professional sports where they’re really talking about suicide prevention and getting mental health. Dak Prescott has a big, you know, group that they talk about that. You need to talk about mental health and how people are feeling and how they feel in the organization. And yes, some of them are our top performers, and if you’re not, if you can’t continue to be a top performer, you might have to move on. But there’s a different way of handling it than causing them to be so frightened.

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

No, completely. And I’m so glad you talked about that because when I first started researching suicide prevention for first responders and the fire service, something that I found that made so much sense was this idea of socially prescribed perfectionism. And the data on suicide prevention found that the greater risk is not trauma.

It’s not seeing bad calls. It is levels of socially prescribed perfectionism, levels of inability to admit that you’re imperfect, and that’s actually why white men have the highest rate of suicide in the U.S. It’s because of those higher signals of socially prescribed perfectionism. And then when you look at occupations where suicide is highest, it is medical field, veterinarians, lawyers, first responders. Not all organizations that are exposed to trauma, but organizations with those high levels of socially prescribed perfectionism.

So, when they have a mistake or a signal of defeat, it’s crushing. And when you’re up here, you feel like you can’t come off of the mountain. Brené Brown, in her book, “Daring Greatly,” she talked about this thing and when she had this whole conversation on with what we’re talking about, but she used this analogy. She called it Victim or Viking mentality, where people feel like they can only be a victim or a Viking.

Kill, or be killed. Right? And if you’re a Viking, you can never, ever be a victim. And then she explains we’re all both. Like, nobody is just a victim. Nobody’s just a hero. We’re all both. And I think we’ve done a good job in our career field and public safety and getting that message out that it’s OK not to be OK.

You know, everybody struggles, and I think that’s why a lot more people are speaking out today about mental health. But I think we’re still getting it wrong a little bit, because we’re still attributing it a hundred percent a lot of times to the calls. And again, that’s why when Chief Rhodes, you know, talked about all these other things, I was like, yes, thank you. The truth. Finally.

Teresa Neal

So, our administrator, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, has talked a lot about resilience and the need to cultivate resilience in our new first responders. I believe you agree with this, and I’ve read one of your articles where you brought it up about, you think about there’s going to be these coping skills and you’re going to do them, and you’re going to be OK.

And then life gets in the way and then you’re not doing them. And then for me, I know, there’s always that shame of not doing what I said I was going to do on top of everything else. But this led you to start studying the polyvagal theory and the heart rate variability. Can you explain this?

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

Yeah, I’m going to explain it at my level.

Teresa Neal

OK, good. Because that’s — that’s what I need.

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

Good, good, good. Because both of them, like polyvagal theory, right? That sounds so high level. Heart rate variability, what the heck is that? But I absolutely love it because finally there is a biomarker, there is something you can measure that is a true predictor of resilience.

If you have high heart rate variability, that is a predictor of resilience. So, initially it was studied among athletes. They found that athletes that had higher heart rate variabilities could recover quicker and also perform better. So, if a runner wanted to run faster, the best way to increase their capacity would be to increase their heart rate variability.

So how do you do that? Fascinatingly, the more rest activities you do, the greater opportunity to increase heart rate variability. If you’re always pushing hard — and that’s why athletes have to recover just as much as they work — if you’re always just training, training, training, and you start overtraining, you’re more likely to get injured.

It becomes difficult to keep up. So, what they found was, any activity that puts your body in the parasympathetic nervous system will actually help you to recover and increase your heart rate variability. So, the harder you push, the harder you have to rest. So, with that, you know, they found all these activities, all these things you could do to increase heart rate variability.

Things like ice baths, which I’m not going to promote here. But breathing exercises. So, whenever you inhale, that activates the sympathetic nervous system. Whenever you exhale, that activates the parasympathetic nervous system. So, if you spend a couple minutes a day doing breathing exercises where you might inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 7 seconds, that’s an activity that will help increase your heart rate variability.

More sleep. So, actually sleeping 8 hours a day can increase your heart rate variability. Play. And I think that’s an upcoming question, which I’m excited about. I hope. So, play, there’s new science on play where you’re engaged in an activity that you enjoy, that’s purposeless and you lose track of time. When you engage in play, that increases heart rate variability.

So, when you increase heart rate variability, you increase your ability to perform. Well, recent science has found that increased heart rate variability is also associated with decreased PTSD, anxiety, depression and suicide. So, all the same things that professional athletes are doing to get stronger, faster and perform better are things that the rest of us can do to build our resilience. So, with that, we have to learn all these activities. Laughter. Laughter actually increases heart rate variability because your defenses shut off. So, breathing exercises, practicing mindfulness, laughter, expressions of gratitude, sleep, yoga, mindfulness, so many different things.

And I’m not saying do every single one or you’re a failure. I’m saying we have to actively find what works for us and make it a daily practice, a daily habit, and then maybe slowly add on. That’s what I’ve done. I’ve started with, you know, sleeping more. Maybe practicing breathing exercises. I’ve recently started doing the cold showers because I read about the benefits, and it seems incredible.

So, I’ve been giving it a shot. I don’t know if I like it or not. Some people like it. So, you know, just trying to incorporate anything, and the hard thing about heart rate variability right now is the devices we have. There’s few devices that measure it well. OK, so I hear the Oura Ring and the WHOOP are 2 devices that measure better than others.

I have an iWatch and on my phone in the morning, I can look at what my heart rate variability is, but from what I understand, it’s not very accurate. So, but I have noticed trends. I’ve noticed when I travel and I’m stressed, I’ve seen it drop. Whereas when I’m getting more rest, when I’m doing the right things, I see it go up.

So, because we hear resilience all the time and without being able to measure it and see where we are, it’s just hard to understand it. So, it’s fascinating now to know that there is a biomarker, there’s something you can measure that will predict your ability to heal.

And in fact, Dr. Van der Kolk, who was one of the original psychologists who studied PTSD and specifically helping people heal from PTSD, he just jumped on the yoga bandwagon immediately because when he practiced it, and he practiced it with a group of soldiers, they immediately, number 1, saw heart rate variability change.

But number 2, saw the people heal, which was so fascinating. Saw the people just start to relax, be open to therapy and start to take steps forward. So, he’s become just a huge advocate for yoga, but more importantly, anything that increases heart rate variability.

Teresa Neal

What about belonging cues? I’m not sure how to weave it in, so I’m just going to ...

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

Throw it out there.

So, back to psychological safety, connection. Connection is where you’re psychologically safe. When you feel connected, when you feel safe, and when it’s reciprocal, meaning it’s not just “I’m connected to my boss and they’re going to look out for me. It’s an equal relationship to where I help them, they help me.”

So, connection is huge. What leads to connection are what we call belonging cues. And according to the book I read where I first learned about it — so everything I’ve studied talks about belonging, but in the book, “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle, such a good book, it’s basic, it’s simple, but it talks about these high-performing teams and what makes them perform so well.

And it’s all these very simple sounding things like belonging, vulnerability and whatnot. So, he mentioned belonging cues and he says they possess 3 basic qualities. Energy. So, there’s energy invested in the relationship. Individualization. So, each person feels valued and unique. They feel like they are a contributing part, not a number, right? And then future orientation. So, people feel, like, this relationship’s going to continue. There are these cues that communicate that, you know, the relationship will continue. So, when these belonging cues are present, where people feel the energy in the relationship, they feel valued and they feel like the relationship will continue, that’s when our defenses relax.

And that’s like the origin of psychological safety. So, you know, if you’re like, what can leaders do? Leaders can give off these belonging cues. They can bring energy into a room, be charismatic, you know, make people feel safe to open up and relax. They can treat everybody like individuals, eye contact, profuse thank yous.

In the book, that’s what I appreciated. He talked about the value of saying thank you and saying thank you often. Of course, not just saying thank you for anything and everything, because then people realize it means nothing. But when somebody does something, recognize it and say thank you. Value them for their individual contributions.

And then that future orientation, right? Ensure they know they are such a valuable part of the team that they’re going to continue to contribute and they’re going to continue to advance. I had a recent conversation, and I didn’t even realize how valuable this was, but one of my peers, and he was talking, he was like, you are going to go to the next step, you’re doing so good, I want you to get these opportunities.

And, you know, on the inside it felt really good that he could see my potential. And he could see me continuing to move forward. And I didn’t realize how important that was, but that’s a belonging cue. That gives me motivation to continue to do what I’m doing, continue to bring that energy and know that I will continue to hopefully be a contributing member of the team.

Teresa Neal

Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about?

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

Oh, so much. How long do we have? So, back to heart rate variability, because I kind of left this one out that I really like. So, one of the most recent areas that I studied, especially in talking about resilience, and I mentioned it very briefly, was play.

And so, the first person who I read who mentioned play was Brené Brown, and I just kind of overlooked it. I was like, play, that’s silly. Who has time for that? But then all of a sudden, especially looking into heart rate variability, play kept emerging as so incredibly important and valuable, and recognizing that we as people, we can’t just keep adding to our plate.

We really have to build in time for play. And I mentioned it earlier, like, play has components. It’s purposeless. You lose track of time. It’s something that you want to do. And when you do those things, that is like the secret sauce to, like, increasing heart rate variability, the secret sauce to feeling good.

So, I just throw that out there because what I see as professionals, especially in, you know, the world we’re living in today, everybody wants to do more. They want to learn more, they want to, you know, be more productive, and I don’t think we realize how damaging that is. And you know, just talking about resilience and how valuable resilience is and the things we need to do, it’s things like sleep, play, gratitude. What I think is crazy is it’s all these very simple things that we forget to make time for.

Teresa Neal

Yeah. We think it’s so difficult. I know I was recently thinking screen time. That screen time is something that I need to start cutting out, you know, or managing. Because when I sit quietly, the things that run through my head have nothing to do with me. You know what I mean? It’s something that I’m listening to. It’s something I read online. It’s, you know, it’s not me. It’s not me, my family, whatever, you know? And I’m just sitting there trying to empty my mind. It’s all of those crazy things.

And I thought, man, you know, that’s one of the things that you can do to make yourself better is limit how much time you are having. You know, you’re already at work all day in front of a computer. Move away from the computer, the TV or whatever, and do something else so that you can really relax without your mind.

You know, sometimes we think relaxing is, OK, my body’s not moving, so I’m relaxing. It’s not the same thing.

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

Exactly. And you know, talking about mindfulness, we know we hear it all the time and a lot of people just overlook it. Like, I’m not a Buddhist monk. I’m not going to practice mindfulness. Or, you know, that’s for hippies or this and that.

But the cool thing about mindfulness is, like you just said, it is just where you can allow yourself to be fully present and engaged in the moment without distractions or worries. So, something that you can do to practice mindfulness every day is literally leave your phone behind, go for a walk.

Go, just go 5 minutes 1 way, turn around and come back 5 minutes and while you’re walking, pay attention to the sounds, the smells, the feels, nature. And what I found when I did that, I was like, wow. I go out and run a lot. I go outside a lot. But I’m always so distracted, I don’t appreciate what’s right here in front of me.

Teresa Neal

The birds singing? All different sounds they make, you know?

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

The smells. Like, what’s growing. Like, you know, every time of the year there’s something different growing outside. Or the frogs, like right now at my house, like, the bullfrogs are loud and they’re all over the place. But that is a practice of mindfulness and that is 1 way to increase heart rate variability.

But like you said, it’s also a way to allow your mind to relax. And you know, I think one of the most valuable things that we can do to develop our resilience is practice mindfulness. Because all day, every day we just stay in reaction mode. We react to things that happen. And when you practice mindfulness, when you practice fully being engaged in the present moment and recognizing that there is a space between stimulus and response, and you’re allowed to take that time to own that space. This is the stimulus, how do I want to respond? When you practice that every day, when stress happens, all of a sudden you get to choose how you respond to that stress.

And sometimes you can choose not to respond at all. And it’s such a beautiful thing. And you know, I think my life would’ve been so much easier if I would’ve started that, you know, in my 20s, would’ve just learned that practice.

Teresa Neal

Well, I know we’re hitting our time, so I just wanted to thank you for coming on and talking and I’d like to have you back in a couple months. I’ve been reading all of your articles and just kind of hit some other topics.

I think that you’re a wealth of information for the fire service and someone that we definitely need to hear from.

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

No, that means a lot. Like, and honestly, I don’t think I’m very smart. I think, actually, I’m not smart, so I do a lot of research so I can figure things out.

Teresa Neal

You and me both.

Battalion Chief Dena Ali

But I love it. Like, writing for me is just, it’s awesome to find things that I wish that I knew or things that the people around me, I wish that they knew and write them down. And I — I feel very fortunate that I’m able to get articles published in Fire Engineering and reach people.

So, I don’t take that for granted. Like, I have a lot of gratitude for, like, the staff at Fire Engineering, their trust when I send them something to take a look at it and to put it out there.

Teresa Neal

Well, thank you for listening to the USFA Podcast, and thank you to Chief Ali for joining us today. And you can — we’ve just spoken about — you can read her articles at

If you have a topic you would like to hear more about or you would like to be a guest on the podcast, please email us at

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We share our new episodes every third Thursday of the month. You can visit us at or on social media by searching “usfire.” Until next month, stay safe.