Capt. Ryan McNamara: One talented ‘polymath’

Tom KingOur Town Heroes

It required a wee bit of digging, but a new word joined my vocabulary in attempting to describe Ryan McNamara. So, are you a “polymath?” He is. That’s my new word – polymath. McNamara is a true polymath. Here’s why!

  • A 25-year veteran of Rural Metro Fire, a captain and a paramedic with an array of skills to do both jobs. Things like leadership under pressure, firefighting skills and medical expertise, hazardous materials technician, confined space rescue, a rescue diver, fire instructor 1, certified in vehicle rescue and is an incident safety officer.
  • Began playing ice hockey at age 8 and after 17 years and many games at different levels, he hung up his skates. He was a burly defenseman.
  • Delivered a healthy baby boy in the back seat of a police car in a Food City parking lot. Everyone left the car in great shape.
  • As a member of the Smoky Mountain Bass Anglers team, he was the state champion at the 2023 Tennessee Bass Federation Tournament on May 5-6 at Nick-A-Jack Lake with a two-day catch of 27 pounds, 1 ounce.
  • And we can’t forget this – when living in Arizona he was a rodeo bull rider for five years. A lower leg/ankle injury ended his rides on the big bulls. “There is no greater adrenalin rush anywhere at any level like being in the chute on the bull when they open the gate,” he says.

He’s a true polymath: “…. An individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.”

Capt. Ryan McNamara

McNamara is the C-shift captain at Station 16 on Westland Drive, just seconds away from Pellissippi Parkway. He’s 51 and he and his wife, Tanya, an occupational therapy assistant, and son Cale, 16, live in Blount County on 10 acres south of Maryville. He met his wife while working for Rural Metro Fire in Maricopa County. She was a Rural Metro dispatcher there.

After they married, they decided to leave the Phoenix area. “We didn’t want to raise a family there and we talked with Chief (Karl) Keierleber who worked as the chief here for four years in Knoxville but was back in Phoenix,” he explained. He and a few others told them about the Knoxville area. “We were looking for a more rural area to live and work in. We visited Knoxville and the area and moved here in 2006. We found our home.”

He was recently honored by Rural Metro for 25 years on the job. During his time, he says the business of firefighting is evolving. “Technology has changed what and how we do it today. The equipment and engines are better. The most impressive and important change in the fire service is that it has gotten away from the good old days. We now embrace true science and investigate the why and how firefighters get injured and killed. We’ve changed our tactics to match the changes in new construction methods and engineering. I am a huge advocate of science-based research that we now have available.”

Here are a few newsy hits:

  • He hopes to become a battalion chief one day.
  • Hardest part of the job? “Maintaining the separation between the job and home. No one at home needs to hear what we do and see on the bad calls.”
  • And the best part of the job? “Having two families. My extended family at work and at home.”
  • A big concern? “The emotional and mental health of our people, the ones struggling with PTSD and hitting rock bottom. This is a very serious job, huge for our community and citizens, and we see things you don’t want to ever see.”

In addition to his passions for the job, fishing and family, he has a deep passion for educating high school students about his chosen career. A dozen years ago Rural Metro Capt. Brian Woods worked with Knox County Schools to introduce and begin a firefighting curriculum with classes at South-Doyle High School. It was combination of classroom instruction and training, with a used fire engine donated by Rural Metro. The instructors were required to earn their state teaching certificates.

McNamara and Woods are still working at the same station today. He joined Woods for two years to teach before the program found its new home at the Byington Solway Career and Technical Education Center next to Karns High School. McNamara took over the program in 2015 and in 2023 he stepped down. Today retired KFD Chris Dyer leads the program with two instructors in classes that meet daily.

The results? McNamara says 11 former students are working today at Rural Metro and departments in Knoxville, Karns and Maryville.

Fulton High School has a similar fire curriculum and classes led by retired Knoxville firefighter Darrell Whitaker, a 32-year veteran. The Fulton program began in 2023 and the Knoxville Fire Department donated a used engine for the students to learn on.

“This is a program I have truly loved more than anything in my career and I am proud that Chief (Jerry) Harnish and everyone at Rural Metro supported it and still do,” McNamara said. “We need more programs like this. It’s successful and we’re getting a lot of interest from the kids. It’s been fun. These students are our future professionals and we are going to need a lot of them.”

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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