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Harnish named chief

Rural/Metro Fire Chief Jerry Harnish may be a little wet behind the ears in his new position over the 14 stations in the Knoxville area, but nothing can douse his blazing enthusiasm for the firefighters under his command.

Harnish was given official command at the beginning of February, but has been interim fire chief since November, when Karl Keierleber retired.

“There are more details to the positioned than I imagined,” Harnish said. “The staff here is very experienced, so it’s not like I have to make all the decisions on my own.”

Harnish, who formerly served as a division chief, said allocating resources for an entire county is slightly different that allocating for a division, but he is looking forward to the challenge.

Rural/Metro divides its forces into two divisions, firefighters and ambulances. Harnish said he is responsible for all 187 firefighters in Knox County.

“I’m still a little too new to the job to talk about goals for the department,” he said. “The main thing I’m always interested in is seeing that no one gets hurt.”

As fire chief, Harnish is responsible for the department’s $10 million annual budget. The budget covers employee wages, equipment repair and replacement, continuing education and a host of other factors.

“Our full-time people get about two hundred forty hours a years in continuing education,” he said. “Our part-timers are supposed to get forty-eight hours a year, but they usually exceed that.”

Harnish said Rural/Metro gets about 13,000 calls per year. Since 60 percent of those calls are for medical or accident related incidents, some of the training is for the firefighters that also serve as paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

“A paramedic has a greater range of treatment options than an E-M-T, such as the ability to distribute medicine,” Harnish said.

Farragut, he said, has seen accidents and incidents as any community does and needed the services of paramedics. The city, however, is in good shape in terms of fire prevention.

“It’s a newer community and the standards there for buildings are higher,” he said.

He said when he started as a firefighter about 1980, firefighters and paramedics were separate entities. Now, it is common for firefighters to also be EMTs or paramedics.

Harnish said he never planned on becoming a firefighter. He was more interested in politics and earned his degree in political science. Like many young people, however, his life took a turn on a dare from his college roommate.

“I was going to Emory and Henry College in Virginia and as part of our curriculum we had to do some volunteer work in the community,” he said. “They had options like working with children, picking up trash along the side of the road, work for a volunteer fire department, things like that,” he said. “None of those other things sounded good, so my roommate said he would join the fire department if I would. So we did.”

Back then, Harnish said, few schools had specific training courses for becoming a firefighter. You had to learn on the job.

“My first real fire call was to a motel fire,” he said. “I thought I’d have frostbite from the cold.”


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