New Year’s Day Jan. 1, 2023, is a Sunday. On that day Capt. Robert “Bobby” George Russell Jr. will begin spending more time with his family, going camping, ending a 32-year career with the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD) and a lifetime of being in and around the world of firefighting.
Russell will depart as the captain on Engine 16 at KFD’s Station 16 on Asheville Highway, the same station from which his father retired in 1994. In his career he has worked at seven stations and spent two years at the KFD Training Academy. That translates into running thousands of fire and medical emergency calls since 1990.
He is a third generation KFD firefighter. His late grandfather, Robert Taylor Russell, owned and was chief of the Fountain City Fire Department and the Holston Hills Fire Department prior to both communities being annexed by Knoxville in 1962. At the time of its annexation, Fountain City was the largest unincorporated community in the U.S. His grandmother, Mildred, was the deputy chief of the Fountain City department.
Russell’s father, also called Bobby, 83, worked for his father at Fountain City until 1962 when he joined KFD. After retirement he became the mayor of Townsend and he and wife Elaine today enjoy life in Maryville. “When he was at KFD a lot of people called him George because there were so many Bobs in the department,” Bobby Jr. said.
Russell is a North Knoxville native who graduated from Fulton High School in 1981. “I was a little on the rebellious side but had grown up in a fireman’s family and I wanted to be a fireman,” he says. “But it wasn’t an option for me then. The city had a hiring freeze that lasted until 1989.”
He tried college but had a creative streak and began working for old Channel 26, which is WVLT-TV Channel 8 today. He was a behind-the-scenes production employee and stayed there for nine years. “After 10 years I knew if I was going to make more money in the TV business, I would have to leave Knoxville and we didn’t want to leave Knoxville.”
Russell also was interested in the military, so in 1982 he joined the Tennessee Army National Guard and then the Air Guard at McGhee Tyson in 1988. He was a fuel specialist and co-commander of Fuel Section 8 when he retired as a senior master sergeant (E-8) in 2011.
In 1989 the city ended its hiring freeze and since staying in the TV world was not an option, Russell applied to the KFD and began a new career at the fire department in 1990. “New career – starting over – and it was a natural fit. My Dad was happy and I was happy working with guys I knew from growing up.” One of those was then Fire Chief Bruce Cureton.
Two years into his career his engine answered a medical call in Lonsdale that stays with him to this day. Three small kids found an old fuel tank from a vehicle and one of them tossed a lighted match into it. The tank blew up. “I rode with the three kids and their mother in the ambulance to UT Medical Center and it was so hard. The kids were burned up, screaming and hollering, in so much pain, and their mother was crying and yelling and in shock,” he says. “All three of them died. It’s the one call in my career that flashes into my mind even today, more than anything, and I’ve seen a lot of really bad things.”
He’s worked under seven fire chiefs in his 32 years, is the second longest-serving captain at the KFD with 21 years since being promoted in 2001. Like most every firefighter he’s had close calls, a ceiling falling on him, smoke-filled homes and rooms, climbing stairs in full gear to save someone in a fire and working dangerous accidents on an Interstate – something first responders in all agencies will tell you they fear.
One aspect of the job he will not miss is being the bearer of bad news. “When I arrive and find someone who has passed away, as the captain, I have to tell the family member or members as next of kin,” he said. “That’s something they don’t train you to do and you learn by experience. And I will not and have never left that person until another loved one or a pastor is there to be with them.”
Here are a few more facts about this KFD vet:
- He can think of only one nickname he was called by some at KFD – The Misfit of Mayhem. “I guess maybe I was a troublemaker who never got in trouble.”
- For five years he was a substitute teacher at Gibbs High School.
- He and his wife are members at Graveston Baptist Church in Corryton.
- Russell says he’s a “big gamer” as a hobby to deal with stress. He enjoys playing “World of Tanks” and “Star Trek Online” and since 1992 has been playing in a Dynasty Fantasy Football League called “The Corryton Warthogs.”
- 61 years of public service – 32 to Knoxville, 29 more to our military.
“It’s going to be different come January 1, retirement, being home a lot more. We’ll have to get used to each other,” he said of himself and wife Jeanine, who is retired from the UT College of Agriculture.
“I was gone weekends a lot, plus deployments with the Air Guard and drill weekends. It’s time for my family and me now. We bought a camper recently and we enjoy walking and hiking.”
Here’s what he will miss: “My KFD brothers and sisters, the camaraderie and the belonging to the department and making a difference.”
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. Suggest future Our Town Hero stories at [email protected] or call him at 865-659-3562.