Batt. Chief Cheesman: Only 7 at her ‘career day’

Tom KingKarns/Hardin Valley, Our Town Heroes

Long ago, 43 years ago actually, Vickie Baird, 7, and her first-grade class at West Hills Elementary School enjoyed a field trip to the Knoxville Fire Department’s (KFD) Station 20 on Portsmouth Road. It turned into an important day in the life of Vickie Baird. It was Career Day for her! And the career day became reality.

Vickie Cheesman

Today, she is Battalion Chief Vickie Cheesman, one of 12 battalion chiefs, the only woman with that rank in KFD history and the only one on the operations (fire) side, leading some to call her “a pioneer.”

Asst. Chief Carla Jones was the first female assistant chief and she works in an administrative role today. In December, Cheesman will celebrate 30 years at KFD.

She loves talking about her career day. “We walked to Station 20 from school and I was smitten right away with the station, the trucks and the firefighters. I loved everything about it. The energy was fun. It was an amazing place,” the chief recalls. “That day I knew what I was going to do when I grew up and from then on, I paid a lot of attention to the KFD.”

Now, as a battalion chief, she oversees operations and staffs at five stations on the Red Shift – 14 (Central Avenue Pike), 5 (Boyd Street), 7 (Lonsdale), 15 (Fountain City) and 17 (Western Avenue).

Not long after first grade her family moved to Karns and she still considers herself a “Karns girl.” She graduated from Karns High School in 1992 and is a self-described “tomboy.” Sports were big for her at Karns. The 5-9 athlete lettered in basketball, volleyball and softball. In her senior year she led the basketball team, averaging 20 points a game.

The only thing she’s not liked is time away from her daughter, Calleigh, 18, who is following in Mom’s footsteps playing softball at Karns. At home, they are working to decide which college will be Calleigh’s next home. “It’s exciting and stressful.”

Two years after graduating from Karns High, Vickie was in the 1994 KFD Fire Academy. Out of the Academy she began at Station 15 in Fountain City for six months. Then she was moved to Station 11 in Whittle Springs where she remained for 13 years. In May 2008, she moved to Station 18 on Weisgarber Road for 14 years. Interestingly, her promotions to captain (2008) and battalion chief (2023) both happened at Station 18.

There were bumps along the way. “My very first captain did not want a female there. In the beginning it was hard. It was long ago and many of the men were older. I was the youngest one by 22 years on my shift. The guys were not happy and their spouses were really not happy.”

The KFD stations had no separate bunk rooms or restrooms for the women. “Yep, I slept in the same bunk room with the men and I shared a restroom with them too. It becomes your day-to-day routine and I’d say ‘woman on deck’ when I walked in. But they were never thrilled with me being there.”

After six months she was transferred to Station 11. “As soon as I got there my captain said my gender meant nothing to him. Then he said, ‘Just do your job and we’ll be fine.’”

The stress of this job is very real, she says. “Everyone who does this work has varying degrees of PTSD. It’s almost unavoidable. It takes a toll on all of us.” Injuries are part of the job. Ten years ago, Cheesman broke a foot on a call and in May 2023 had lower back surgery for a fusion and cleaning up discs. She spent six months on light duty and feels like new today.

She’s been pretty much a regular at the Fire Academy, training recruits. She has been a live-fire instructor and is a vehicle extraction instructor. In 2022, in addition to her day-to-day work, Cheesman was the lead academy instructor. That led to her being honored in 2022 with the KFD Distinguished Service Award.

Firefighters have long been known as masterful practical jokers. About 20 years ago, her shift was responding to a call to run and were in the middle of a shift change. She left her car keys on the kitchen table. When she returned from the call her keys were gone. Maybe I left them in my car, a beautiful blue Mustang, she said. “I went behind the station to check in my car and my car was gone.” After an hour she was about to call dispatch and get them to call KPD. “I was convinced it was stolen. That’s when they told me it was down the street at a motel. Funny, eh?”

A few years later, she was the prankster. “It was one of my favorite pranks,” she says. “My captain at the time was a heavy sleeper. I waited until he was in a very deep sleep and I took a Sharpie and carefully drew a kitty cat nose and whiskers on him. We got a call right after that … and the looks he got were absolutely priceless. He had no idea.”

She was involved in other pranks, too, like putting the same captain’s house up for sale at a low price and his car, too.

The career is all she thought it would be when she was 7. “There are a million things I love. The teamwork we have is like sports. No two days are alike. We make a big difference in the communities we protect. It’s a family atmosphere.”

Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia. If you have someone you think we should consider featuring, please email him at the link with his name or text him at 865-659-3562


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