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Never tell me I can’t… A personal story of Perseverance, Commitment, Sacrifice and Success.

Marissa Hays - Mother, Firefighter, Student IPSLEI 2023 Ronny J. Coleman Fire & Emergency, Leader of the Future Scholarship Recipient. ©2024 Marissa Hays

High School Senior year is something most people tend to look forward to. Me? Not so much. I had just moved to Alabama from my home state of North Carolina. I had no friends, no aspirations, and no plans for my future. I was taught that women were meant to stay at home and tend to the children. However, that never felt right to me. It wasn't until this year that I figured out why.

My morning routine was mundane. I would do the same thing every day, at the same time, without fail. First, I would wake up around 9am and get ready for the day. Then I would go downstairs, eat my breakfast, and make sure there were no family plans for the day. Afterwards, I would go back upstairs to my desk and start on my schoolwork. I didn’t have very many traditional subjects; Finance, Economics, and Algebra 2 – the rest were college-level textbooks that I had gotten at the library and my mom would count them as a credit if I could successfully test out of them. I would usually finish my studies around 10:30am and devote the rest of my day to sewing, fishing, or going to the library to return and exchange my books

That changed not long into the school year. I was spending so much time at the library that I convinced my parents to let me volunteer there. It was wonderful! It was about a mile walk from my house and I went there every afternoon from 12pm - 4:30pm. However, doing so made me realize that I was terrible with people. I hated social interactions, I didn’t know how to hold a conversation, and I couldn’t pick up on social cues to save my life. Thankfully, the head librarian didn’t hold that against me. Instead, she helped me to refine my social skills through personal encounters and referred me to several psychology books. She knew I loved reading nonfiction, so it was just more material for me to enjoy.

I continued to do so for several months and got invited to go to a city council meeting as a library representative. It was through this that I met the Chief of Police and decided I wanted to be a sheriff’s deputy to work with K9’s, since I loved dogs and wanted to train them. I talked with my parents about volunteering with them, and after much convincing, they reluctantly agreed. That same afternoon, I went to both the sheriff’s department and the police station and was told the same thing – I couldn’t volunteer until I was 21. I was only 17 at the time and I was crushed. It felt like something had been stolen from me.

Looking back, four years isn’t that long of a time period; but back then it felt like an eternity. I called my mom on my way home to tell her. She told me to go to the fire department and see if they would let me volunteer. No, it wasn’t the police, but she gave me good justification by saying I would get to still run calls alongside the police and see how they operate. At first, I was hesitant. I had this idea in my head that the fire department was full of sweaty, dirty, old guys who I didn’t want to be around. Eventually I gave in and walked over to the station. I mean, they are just going to say no also, right?

I walked in and got the most confused looks from the men on duty. I asked them if they were accepting volunteers and their faces lit up and they told me they were. I was shocked! They didn’t even ask me my age and instead invited me to sit down with them to talk. The matter eventually came up, but they said I could still volunteer at the station and learn about the fire service regardless. There was one stipulation though: I couldn’t run any calls until I turned 18. No big deal, that was in a matter of months anyway. We sat and talked for about another hour and then I headed home thrilled.

I enjoyed going to the fire department, the men on shift did the best they could to teach me everything they could about the trucks and equipment. Time went on, and they began to let me ride with them to go eat lunch, except for the Assistant Chief. He posed a fair point that if they were to catch a call, that I couldn’t go with them, but that they also couldn’t leave me alone at the restaurant either. Eventually, he gave in, and took me with him because everybody else had been doing so without issue. That day I ran my first call. While enroute, I asked my Assistant Chief if he wanted me to stay in the truck. He told me that he wanted me to stick with his partner and assist with patient care. When we got on scene, I was nervous, understandably, but as soon as I stepped foot out of the truck, something inside me changed. I instantly knew, deep in my heart, and with every fiber of my body, that this was what I was meant to do, and nothing would stop me.

Not long after running that call, there was a large influx of teenagers that were interested in volunteering because they were in an Alabama Volunteer Firefighter 160 class through their high school. Because of this, our Assistant Chief began the process of creating a Fire Explorer’s post to allow us to begin running calls. It also opened the doors for the firefighters to begin putting us into turnout gear and training us more in depth. This is when people began to tell me that I would never be able to do this career.

At this time, I was 85 pounds and not very physically capable. Just wearing turnout gear alone was difficult, then you add in the evolutions? Nearly impossible. I understand why they said what they said. At that time, I was physically incapable of performing that job. However, it did hurt, and it planted seeds of doubt in my mind. What if they were right? What if I couldn’t do this? Then what? I didn’t want to give up on this dream. I didn’t want to have to find a new passion. I loved this field. I loved the brotherhood, the comradery, the dynamic, honestly everything about it. I couldn’t quit that easily. That’s when my Assistant Chief suggested I go attempt to take the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), so I did, and I failed. Miserably. I could not complete a single station. That’s when I decided to go to EMT school. In EMT school, I faced the same challenges. My fellow classmates told me I would never be able to work on an ambulance, let alone be a firefighter, because I couldn’t lift a stretcher – even without a patient on it. But I graduated regardless, and started volunteering at my second fire department, Rocky Ridge Fire Department. Never tell me I can’t!

Rocky Ridge Fire Department is where I met one of my most significant mentors. Unlike everyone prior, he encouraged me, saying if I kept trying, that I would one day achieve my goal and be a firefighter. Over time, I began to get stronger. As I got stronger, I became more confident. I took the CPAT 12 more times, but still was unable to make it past the first obstacle. I slowly began to doubt myself further and further with each failed attempt. It was at this point I realized I needed to begin making money so I could move out of my parent’s home, so I left Rocky Ridge Fire Department to go to work in private EMS.

I went from private ambulance to private ambulance, and eventually met my now ex-husband and got married. I decided to begin a focus on getting higher in the emergency medical side of things while I continued to grow my strength. I started Advanced EMT school in 2019, and a few weeks into class, found out I was pregnant with my son. Then Covid-19 hit, and classes swapped to being distance learning. Despite that, I still passed the class, and became a registered Advanced EMT.

After getting my Advanced EMT license, I decided to go back to one of my current places of employment at Regional Paramedical Services. I was 7 months pregnant, but the manager guaranteed I would not lose my position and would retain my position after maternity leave. After having our child, and coming back to work, my manager was extremely understanding of mine and my then husband’s situation with our baby and promised to allow us to relieve each other at work so that we could hand off our child. My manager kept his word.

In 2021, I decided to start taking the Volunteer Firefighter 160 program, through Springville Fire Department. I had tried applying to several fire departments, but had heard no reply from any of them, so I figured getting this certification wouldn’t hurt – and it would hopefully better prepare me for CPAT. The class was phenomenal, and it proved to me that with enough training and support, that I could do the basic functions this job entailed. I successfully passed the class, and decided to take the CPAT again, and failed again, for the 13th time.

Fast forward to the year 2022, and I began looking at the hiring board again for a fire department position. I had attempted the CPAT for the 14th time – no success again. Was I a glutton for punishment? Perseverance, commitment, and pride ran through my thoughts. Never tell me I can’t!

I applied to Cahaba Valley Fire and EMR District because I knew they had had great success in the past with training people to pass the CPAT, but I was not expecting anything to come of it. After all, I had failed 14 times prior. Next thing I know, I got an interview. While I was in the interview, I made mention of not being able to pass the CPAT, but that if they put the time and training into me, I swore I would do so, and would not make them regret their decision. They decided to call my bluff, and offered me the position, which I took willingly. It was a pay cut from my private ambulance pay, but I couldn't turn down the opportunity. Sacrifice was needed.

I started working for Cahaba Valley Fire District in December of 2022. I was scheduled on B-shift driving the rescue apparatus. My crew made sure to work with me every shift to do physical training, mock CPATs, or air consumption training, depending on the day. Perseverance. Commitment.

In April, we responded to a structure fire with a neighboring volunteer department. There were two personnel on the engine, myself and my partner on the rescue, and our Battalion Chief for the initial response. We had received reports of a possible victim at dispatch. Upon getting on scene, we were told that everybody was out of the structure, so we had begun to set up for fire attack. My partner at the time and I were both not certified to where we could go internal, so we were assigned to helping chuck hose to the person on the line.

I had just finished gearing up to do so when a woman came around the front of the structure yelling “she’s on the other side of the house!” My Battalion Chief asked her who was on the other side of the house, and the woman informed him that her bedbound mother-in-law was still inside. He looked at me and my partner and told us to go get her. We masked up, my partner ripped the side door out of its tracks, and we made entry. My partner located the patient in her bed, not far from the door itself. The floor was covered with unidentifiable objects, so he elected to just try and get the whole bed out, as it was a hospital bed. We both began pulling, and our Battalion Chief who had joined us began to push.

We got her out, successfully, and got her down to the ground to be evaluated. Thankfully, she had suffered no injuries, and was transported for further evaluation. Everybody involved in that fire scene received an Award of Valor from Cahaba Valley Fire District and the Shelby County Public Safety Award due to the successful rescue. I gained so much more than that - the personal experience that I could do this job, without any shadow of a doubt. Never tell me I can’t.

Shortly after this incident, I decided to take the CPAT again as a practice attempt. Attempt number 15. I failed. The proctor told me I would never pass the CPAT, and that if I did, I would never make it through recruit school. I went and told my Captain what had happened, and his eyes lit with a fire. He said we would prove him wrong, and amped up the training. 2 weeks later, I went for another attempt. And this time, on my 16th attempt, I passed. And not only did I pass, but I smoked it, coming in at more than a minute under time. Perseverance, commitment, sacrifice.

The CPAT proctor was the same as before. The one who said I would never pass. To his surprise, I did pass, and his face lit up with pride. He told me if I kept the drive he had seen, and work as hard as I have been, that I would have no issue with recruit school. I thought, never tell me I can’t.

In June of 2022, I went to the Anniston Regional Training Center for their bridge program – Volunteer Firefighter to Firefighter 1 & 2. I was doing great, keeping up with everybody in class, and not letting anything break me. So much so that during PT on the Wednesday of our first week when I got stung by a bee running the towers, I refused to stop PT despite the instructors asking if I needed to stop. And let me tell you, running towers with a bee sting in your calf muscle hurts – tremendously. Friday of that week comes around, and I begin feeling dizzy when I woke up to go to class. I thought it was just a sinus infection. I told the instructors because if I went from bent over to standing upright really quickly, I got really dizzy. They offered to let me sit out of PT, but I said no. I asked for them to just cut me a little slack if I was a bit slow to stand up after pushups, and they agreed. I finished PT successfully, and we went about the rest of our day.

Saturday, week 1 of class complete, I woke up unable to get out of bed. I was extremely dizzy, throwing up, and the vertigo I had was awful. I told my then husband that something was wrong, and he brushed it off. He said I was being over exaggerative and would not take me to the doctor to be evaluated. I called my best friend, and she took me to the hospital. The nurse comes in after giving me a few bags of fluid and said all of my bloodwork looked fine and that once my bag was done, I would be released.

I was both relieved and worried. I could go back to class, but I also didn’t know what was causing my issues. 10 minutes after saying that, my nurse came back in and said never mind, I wasn’t leaving because I was in Rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo), a rare condition that breaks down muscles and releases toxins into your blood and kidneys. I was destroyed. I knew that meant I couldn’t go back to class. I felt like everything I had worked so hard for was being ripped out from under me. Feeling defeated, my fire department reassured me that I would not lose my job and would do whatever they had to do to get me back into a class once I was recovered. My instructors reassured me that I would do fine and pass once I recovered and to focus on doing so. I was in the hospital for 4 days. My then husband only visited me one time. My best friend had to take me home. Perseverance, commitment, sacrifice.

I got home, still dizzy, still in Rhabdo, but with my CPK (creatine phosphokinase) levels decreased to a level that the doctor was comfortable with me continuing my recovery at home. As soon as I walked in the door, more doubt gets seeded into my mind. The first words out of my husband’s mouth were “so what’s your plan for when you fail again? Because you obviously aren’t physically capable of being a firefighter.” Those words cut through me like a knife, my heart was broken, not even the man I loved who I had devoted everything to, believed in me. Never tell me I can’t.

With a slew of other things that had happened prior, that incident was one that prompted my divorce. I slowly recovered and was released to go back to work. Everybody on shift worked hard, again, to get me ready to go back to school. They had offered to let me go back the following year to another bridge course. I said no and elected to go to a full recruit school at the same facility starting in September.

My Lieutenant started off with me walking laps in just turnout pants, then a jacket, then a bottle, then on air, and slowly added an obstacle at a time to my air consumption course. By the time recruit school came back around, I had only done one complete lap of consumption, one time.

I started back to recruit school in September of 2022, full of new seeds of doubt. My ex-husband had been removed from the house, so I was not only starting recruit school, but also just beginning to navigate a divorce and being a single mom. I informed my instructors before class started because of the severe amount of stress, and they were understanding.

Class started, and I was no way near as physically prepared as I was before. But I knew if I failed, if I dropped out, that I would prove the naysayers right, and lose not only a career, but a family. That was just not going to happen was my attitude. After all of the work and time they had put into me, I could not let them down. They were my rock, getting me through all of the negativity in my personal life, and I could not risk giving that up.

I began to focus only on the week ahead, then the day ahead, and then solely on getting through the individual drill. But I did it. I made it through. I was officially a fully certified firefighter, and nobody could take that away from me. Never tell me that I cannot do what I am willing to persevere to achieve, to commit to accomplishing, to sacrifice, if need be, to be successful.

Fast-forward to today, I am still with Cahaba Valley Fire and EMR District, and could not ask for a better, more supportive fire department. I am currently working full-time, along with two part time jobs, and going to college full-time. I will graduate in May 2024 with my Associate Degree in Emergency Medical Services, and my Paramedic licensure (pending passing National Registry). I will then transfer to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and begin my undergraduate studies in preparation for medical school. So, look out world because an Emergency Physician is what I will be, and do not even try to tell me that I can’t.

A final thought.

If I had to pass on one thing that I have learned, it would be this: No matter what background you come from, no matter what challenges and difficulties you face, and no matter what anybody else says — you can do anything that you put your mind to.

For more information on IPSLEI programs and scholarships, contact us at

International Public Safety Leadership and Ethics Institute A 501 (c)(3) Non-Profit Organiza7on (20-3002065) 335 Country Club Trail Fairfield PA 17320 Office 717-283-2083 -- Kevin S. Brame Executive Director 951-283-0498

©2024 Marissa Hays

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