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‘Never tell me I can’t’: A story of perseverance, commitment, sacrifice and success

Amid repeated setbacks and naysayers attitudes, I pushed forward to achieve my fire department dream


Photo/Anniston Regional Training Center

Editor’s Note: The International Public Safety Leadership & Ethics Institute (IPSLEI), in partnership with the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society Foundation, recently announced the recipients of the 2024 IPSLEI Endowed Academic Scholarships. The author of the following essay, Marissa Hays, received the Ronny J. Coleman Fire & Emergency, Leader of the Future Scholarship. Learn more about IPSLEI programs and scholarships.

By Marissa Hays

High school senior year is something most people tend to look forward to, but me? Not so much. I had just moved to Alabama from 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 – but that never felt right to me.

My morning routine was mundane. I would wake up around 9 a.m. and get ready for the day. I would go downstairs, eat my breakfast, and make sure there were no family plans for the day. Afterward, I would go back upstairs to my desk and start on my schoolwork. Being homeschooled, I had a handful of traditional subjects – finance, economics and Algebra 2; the rest of my studies came from college-level textbooks I had picked up at the library. My mom would count them as a credit if I could successfully test out of them. I would usually finish my studies around 10:30 a.m. and devote the rest of my day to sewing, fishing, or going to the library to return and exchange my books.

This routine 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! And after several months, I was invited to attend a city council meeting as a library representative. It was through this event that I experienced my first interest in working in public safety. I met the chief of police and decided that I wanted to be a sheriff’s deputy to work with K9s. So, I went to both the sheriff’s department and the police station to inquire about volunteering but quickly learned that I couldn’t volunteer until I was 21. I was only 17 at the time, and I was crushed.

Finding the fire department: ‘Something inside me changed’


Photo/Cahaba Valley Fire and EMR District

My mom suggested that I go to the fire department to see if they would let me volunteer. She reminded me that while it was not the police, I would still get to still run calls alongside the police and see how they operate. I was hesitant. I had this idea in my head that the fire department was full of sweaty, dirty old guys, but I gave in and walked over to the station. I mean, they were just going to say no, right?

I walked in and saw the most confused looks from the men on duty. I asked them if they were accepting volunteers, and their faces lit up – they were! I was shocked. They invited me to sit down to talk with them. The matter of my age eventually came up, and they said I could still volunteer at the station and learn about the fire service; I just 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 about the trucks and equipment. Time went on, and they began to let me ride with them to go eat lunch – everyone except 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 en route, I asked the assistant chief if he wanted me to stay in the truck. He instead said 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.

Early setbacks: ‘What if I couldn’t do this?’

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 run 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.

I was 85 pounds and not very physically capable. Just wearing turnout gear alone was difficult, let alone the evolutions – nearly impossible. I understand why they said what they said, but it 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 camaraderie, the dynamic; honestly everything about it. I couldn’t quit that easily. That’s when my assistant chief suggested that I try 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.

Pushing forward: ‘I began to get stronger’

In EMT school, I faced the same challenges. My 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. No matter, I graduated and started volunteering at my second fire department, Rocky Ridge Fire Department.

The Rocky Ridge Fire Department is where I met one of my most significant mentors. He encouraged me, saying if I kept trying, I would one day achieve my goal and be a firefighter.

Sure enough, over time, I began to get stronger, and with that strength came confidence. I took the CPAT 12 more times, but still was unable to make it past the first obstacle. I slowly began to doubt myself more and more with each failed attempt.

It was at this point I realized I needed to begin making money so I could move out of my parents’ home, so I left Rocky Ridge to go to work in private EMS.

I went from private ambulance to private ambulance and eventually met my now ex-husband. I decided to focus on getting higher in the emergency medical side of work while I continued to grow my strength. I started Advanced EMT school in 2020, and a few weeks into class, found out I was pregnant with my son. Then COVID-19 hit, and in-person classes moved to distance learning. Even with so much happening, I 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 our situation with having a 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, 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 fall of 2021, when I began looking at the hiring board again for a fire department position. I 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!

Rescue and reinforcement: ‘I could do this job’

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. Why would they want to risk hiring me? Next thing I knew, despite my doubts, 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 2021. 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. Perseverance. Commitment.

In February 2022, 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 set up for fire attack. Neither my partner nor I was not certified to 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. The chief 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 try to get the whole bed out, as it was a hospital bed. We both began pulling, and our battalion chief who had joined us begin to push, too.

We removed her successfully and got her down to the ground to be evaluated. Thankfully, she suffered no injuries and was transported for further evaluation.

Everybody involved in that fire scene received an Award of Valor from the Cahaba Valley Fire District along with the Shelby County Public Safety Award. I gained so much more than those awards, though – the reinforcement that I could do this job, without any shadow of a doubt. Never tell me I can’t.


Hays after receiving the Cahaba Valley Fire District’s Award of Valor with her crew.

Photo/Cahaba Valley Fire and EMR District

CPAT success: ‘I smoked it’

Shortly after this incident, I decided to take the CPAT again as a practice attempt. Attempt 15: Fail. The proctor told me I would never pass the CPAT, and that if I did, I would never make it through recruit school.

I told my captain what had happened, and his eyes lit with a fire. He said we would prove the proctor wrong, and amped up the training. Two 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.

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

Health challenge and personal realization: ‘I was destroyed’

In June 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. And let me tell you, running towers with a bee sting in your calf muscle hurts – tremendously.

Then Friday of that week, I began 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 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.

The next day, I woke up unable to get out of bed. I was throwing up, and the vertigo was awful. I told my then-husband that something was wrong, and he brushed it off. He said I was exaggerating and would not take me to the doctor to be evaluated. I called my best friend, and she took me to the hospital. After administering a few bags of fluid, the nurse said my bloodwork looked fine and that 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. Ten minutes after saying that, the nurse came back in and said nevermind, 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 had recovered. My instructors reassured me that I would do fine and pass once I recovered and to focus on doing so.

After four days in the hospital, I was released to return home. As soon as I walked in the door, more doubt was planted in 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 believed in me. That incident, along with a slew of other things that had occurred previously and afterwards, was one of the major prompts for my divorce.

A group effort: ‘Everybody worked hard to get me ready’

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 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 2022, full of new seeds of doubt. I was not only starting recruit school, but also just beginning to navigate a divorce as a single mom. I informed my instructors before class started because of the severe amount of stress, and they were understanding.

Fear of losing a career and family: ‘That was just not going to happen’

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


Hays with her fire recruit school class.

Photo/Anniston Regional Training Center

Dream achieved: ‘Look out world’

Today, I am still with the Cahaba Valley Fire and EMR District, and could not ask for a better, more supportive fire department. I work full-time along with two part-time jobs and graduate on May 9, 2024, securing my associate degree in emergency medical services and my paramedic licensure. I will soon 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 someday, and do not even try to tell me that I can’t.


Hays with her paramedic school classmates.

Photo/Gadsden State EMS Program

A final piece of advice

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. Persevere. Commit. Sacrifice. SUCCESS.

Marking the 50th anniversary of her historic hiring, Brewer reflects on her career and the challenges and joys of breaking the fire service glass ceiling

Marissa Hays is a firefighter/paramedic in Alabama. In 2022, Hays received an Award of Valor for participating in a live rescue during a working residential fire. Hays studied EMS at Gadsden State Community College in Alabama, and has been accepted to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for the fall 2024 semester with a major in neurobiology. Her goal is to attend medical school to become an emergency room physician and EMS medical director.