For 20 years, first responders and emergency personnel have helped us save lives and keep families safe. In doing so, they often put their lives and well-being at risk. As part of our 20th anniversary celebration, we are giving back, helping support these brave men and women the same way that they’ve helped so many. We identified 20 public safety personnel who experienced serious physical injury or hardship and awarded each of them $20,000.
Marnee Smith was one of those 20 first responders. Some might say she’s one in a million. The wife and mother of five volunteered for years as a county volunteer firefighter, after investing her own money to become certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT) to help her county’s struggling volunteer fire department.
Cooke County, Texas, is nestled midway along the east wing of Texas right up against the Oklahoma border. Travel south on I-35 and you’ll see the quintessential Texas flatlands. Head east along 82 and the landscape gives way to more verdant forests. “You have a lot of small communities, and they are pretty close-knit,” Marnee says. “You get to know everybody around; it has a really small-town feel.”
The sparse, widespread population leaves Cooke County in perpetual need of emergency medical responders, so in 2002, Marnee began volunteering for the county fire department, completing the EMT basic training, as required, at her own expense. Before long, she had also obtained paramedic training and accepted a part-time position with Cooke County EMS. On June 10, 2008, Marnee had just climbed into bed after a 24-hour shift when her pager went off; there was an urgent call near her house. On her way to respond, Marnee lost control of the vehicle on a rough patch of road, launching headfirst into a tree. The impact crushed her tibia and fibula, punctured a lung and caused serious facial lacerations.
Marnee’s face and lung eventually healed, but her leg could not be saved. Her leg was amputated in December of 2008. She had to relinquish her position as a paramedic, and their house went into foreclosure. She began serving as a field training officer, teaching the EMT-Basic program at North Central Texas College; it would be two years before Marnee would be able to work as a paramedic again. But by 2014, Marnee was named Cooke County’s 2014 Paramedic of the Year.
A coworker who knew about the OnStar 20th anniversary award had emailed Marnee, letting her know about it and asking for information so that he could nominate her for the grant. Marnee mentioned it to her middle daughter, Brittani, who, unbeknownst to Marnee, looked up information on the program and also submitted a nomination for her mother.
“She has never given up, even when facing foreclosure after having to step down and losing half of the income for a household with five children,” Brittani wrote in her mother’s nomination. “She worked three jobs to keep the bills paid, sometimes resulting in her being wheelchair-bound for days due to strenuous activity … she believed in and pushed herself every day. She did not cry. She did not wallow in self-pity. She got the job done. She always has and she always will, because in this line of work, the job is someone's life. She is a wonderful example of what it means to be dedicated to every aspect of your job and she deserves to be recognized for her many accomplishments and outstanding work ethic while only having use of some of the tools. My mom, my hero, is a paramedic.”
One evening, when Marnee was at home, she received a call from OnStar congratulating her on being chosen for this OnStar program. “I didn’t believe it; they said Brittani had nominated me. I called Brittani to be sure it wasn’t some scam,” Marnee recalls.
What lies ahead
Today Marnee works 24-hour shifts with Cooke County EMS and still teaches the EMT-Basic program at North Central Texas College. But the OnStar grant has made much more possible for her. She used some of the grant to make their home wheelchair accessible, but the majority of the grant will go to helping her community. She has plans to start her own EMT-Basic program for the Cooke County region. First Responder Training Solutions will provide an affordable training option for volunteers. “Volunteers all have regular jobs; they’re not looking for a career,” explains Marnee. “So when they have to invest in the education just to be able to respond, it makes it difficult to even recruit volunteers to come into the department.” Her applications are in, awaiting state approval. While she wants to build her own facility, Cooke County EMS has agreed to help in the interim; she will be able to use their facility and training equipment. “Success will be when all of our volunteers are certified first responders, and we have no shortage of EMRs,” Marnee says.
Marnee’s experience shapes how she will teach her curriculum. “Right now, the curriculum does emphasize personal and personnel safety. But I think when you have actual stories of injuries or you can be a visual for somebody, it can have more of an impact. I want to emphasize that we have to take care of ourselves before we take care of other people. I want to make an actual impact.”
Within the last few years, training programs have begun to acknowledge the mental effects of first responder work. “We need to teach the obligation to take care of yourself mentally, and recognizing warning signs that something’s going on,” Marnee says. “Not just in yourself, but in your peers as well. We’re really good about going out there and taking care of complete strangers, but we have a bad habit of ignoring the mental side of it. The individual who’s experiencing it sees it as a weakness, so they don’t want to reach out. We have to take care of each other.”