Rural Metro Fire has its chief and its deputy chief. And assistant chiefs and battalion chiefs. It has captains.
But it has only one “Sarge.”
James Eric Jernigan is Sarge. He’s a master firefighter and paramedic at Station 26 on Strawberry Plains Pike. He has been a fixture there for nine years and has been with Rural Metro since 1996. He lives two miles from the station, and he and his family are embedded in the Carter community.
Wife Mindy works at Team Health and their son, Logan, 17, is a junior at Carter High School, where he plays football and baseball.
Sarge and Mindy attend Trentville United Methodist Church, and Logan goes to Strawberry Plains United Methodist.
Sarge, 49, earned his moniker from his days as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, serving in Kuwait as part of Desert Storm in 1991 as a 21-year-old combat engineer. Being a combat engineer is dangerous work – he cleared minefields to make lanes in the sand for vehicles and troops. He returned to the Middle East as part of the Operation Iraqi Freedom campaign in 2007. He was then a Navy corpsman (combat medic) attached to the Marines. He retired in 2012 from the Naval Reserves as a Petty Officer 1st Class – an E-6 sergeant in the Army. “Sarge” has stuck.
Jernigan’s father was in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Japan when Sarge was born in 1970. The family soon moved to Oak Ridge, and he was reared there, graduating from Oak Ridge High School and then Roane State Community College. He attended the University of Tennessee but opted to leave school and find a job. The job was with Child & Family Services at a treatment center for troubled teens. Interestingly, Logan Jernigan hopes to work in the area of special-needs education.
Then an old friend suggested Jernigan become a firefighter/paramedic with Rural Metro. He graduated from the Fire Academy in 1996 and EMT School in 1997 and earned his paramedic certification in 2000.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of this profession,” he says. “There is pain involved when you lose a victim or a patient or losing someone who has been a patient multiple times. Out here I’m intertwined in the community and know a lot of the families. I run into people almost every day who come up and speak to me and thank me for what we did for their family.”
Jernigan describes himself as a humble man with no ego, a lover of his community, and at Rural Metro he focuses on teamwork. “I probably get the teamwork approach from the military,” he says.
Station 26 covers the part of Knox County from the Holston River to the French Broad River and a wide swath of land in between, about a 70-square-mile coverage area. “This community has an older population, and people out here are very self-sufficient,” he says. “There are lots of farms and not many subdivisions.”
He rattled off the various emergencies they work – tractor accidents, someone being thrown off a horse, vehicle accidents, home fires, agricultural accidents and many medical calls involving cardiac and respiratory cases. “We see many of the same people over and over,” he adds. “We had a recent call and saved a man from a cardiac arrest. He was not breathing, and he lived. We were called there again two weeks later and they (his family) didn’t find him quickly enough, and we could not save him.”
However, Jernigan was part of a “team” that saved a man sitting in the stands at a Carter High football game this past fall. He was off duty and talking to the Carter trainer on the sidelines. “We noticed a commotion in the stands and at first we thought it was a fight,” he recalls. “Then I realized someone was giving a man CPR and I jumped the fence and ran into the stands. The guy doing the CPR was a paramedic friend of mine who has a bad back, so I took over the CPR. The man had no pulse. Zero. The emergency people brought over an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) and we zapped him a few times. We got a pulse, and in 30 seconds he opened his eyes and sat up. He was in his 70s, and we got him into the ambulance and he’s alive and well today.”
In his spare time, he’ll teach first aid and AED training to church groups, and he also enjoys working and volunteering at music festivals as a paramedic – at Bonnaroo, Hippie Jack’s near Livingston, Tenn., and the Muddy Riots motorcycle rally in Cookeville. He also loves camping and fly fishing.
When asked about how he deals with and handles working with those injured or badly injured in accidents, his reply was interesting. “One thing I can pat myself on the back about is being able to stay calm under pressure. I talk to all of our patients. Sometimes you hold their hand. Compassion does not cost anything. I reassure them that we’re helping them and try to reduce their anxiety. I try to relate with them and talk to them.”
When you ask him if he ever saved a life, his answer is brief: “I’ve been part of a team many times that has saved lives. It’s a team that does this work.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we should feature, email Tom King.