My Why: Turning a Family Tragedy into a Mission

Jeannie McCarty is a longtime Red Cross employee and is a disaster program manager in the greater DFW metro. Jeannie and her team of volunteers respond to home fires, help the community prepare for and respond to emergencies and install free smoke alarms in at-risk homes across the area.

Jeannie has shared her family’s story and why she believes so much in the American Red Cross Sound the Alarm campaign. She hopes that by reading her story, you’ll be motivated to help make our communities safer by volunteering to install free smoke alarms. Learn more at

As the Red Cross continues the Sound the Alarm campaign to make homes safer from fires, it was laid on my heart that it is important share, for me, why the American Red Cross Home Fire and Sound the Alarm campaigns are so important.

My “why” is January 17, 1983: the day we lost my mother-in-law in a home fire. She lived in a mobile home in a rural part of Ellis County, Texas. She worked nights and slept days. When the kids left for school that morning, she was asleep in her bedroom.

Three hours later she was gone forever.

We are still unsure how the fire started but suspect it was sparked by a space heater. We are sure, however, there were no smoke alarms in the house.

Her body was found on her bed and the medical examiner told the family that she had simply never woken up, succumbing to smoke inhalation. This is some small measure of comfort under the circumstances.

Sadly, there was an outside door less than 10 feet from where she lay. We are confident she would have been able to escape safely if a smoke alarm awoken her.

Ironically, she mentioned to the family when we were all together for Christmas that she should probably install smoke alarms since the grandkids came to her home after school while she was still sleeping. We all agreed and promised to get this done for her.

As with most things, we procrastinated. Two short weeks later it was too late.

The smoke alarm installation program is not a hard sell. Everyone agrees that functioning smoke alarms save lives in the event of a home fire. But almost no one really believes that they are going to have a fire in their home. So, like our family, they procrastinate.

I never want another family to feel the pain nor carry the guilt that mine does. What a difference it would have made if someone had volunteered their time to install smoke alarms in our mother’s home.

I know we always try to share the positive outcome of our “why” stories but unfortunately, my story went a different direction. When I express my gratitude to our volunteers for their work and assure them that their efforts are making a difference, it is heartfelt because I know firsthand what the other side looks like.

To learn more about the Red Cross Sound the Alarm campaign and how you can help, visit

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