Billy Kear says he “grew up” at the old Rural Metro Station 31 on Depot Street in Powell back in the 1980s. Around the age of 6, he’d sit in front of the TV and watch Squad 51 do their thing on the show “Emergency.” He was a little boy fascinated by firefighters and their trucks.
“I can’t explain it really, how infatuated I became and being so fascinated with firemen and what all they did for people,” he says. “It sure stayed with me.”
He remains fascinated today. That kid is now Rural Metro Fire Battalion Chief William “Billy” Kear. He’s in his 31st official year with the company, after four as a “junior fireman.” He even has the first helmet he wore with the number 31 on it and “Powell” across its bottom in red. Powell remains Station 31, but in a different location.
Kear, 49, today works out of Station 10 on Parkside Drive and supervises the Red shift that includes eight stations in West Knox County and some 30 firefighters and three captains.
He sits back and smiles when he thinks back to those days at the Powell station when he began hanging out there at age 14. “I was there all of the time when I wasn’t in school. I’d help wash the engines and help clean up the station and sometimes they’d take me on calls,” he says. “I did everything except go in to fight the fires. I loved talking with the firemen and listening to their stories. I was living my dream.”
After graduating from Powell High School in 1989, Kear began working for the department as a reserve firefighter and lived in the Powell station. He also was putting himself through college, earning an associate degree at Pellissippi State in 1993. He also earned his EMT certification. He continued his education at Tusculum College, graduating with honors and a bachelor’s degree in business.
In 1992, he became full-time and worked at Station 28 on Martin Mill Pike. Back then, Rural Metro had one-man engines. It was there that he realized the responsibility of the job and what it’s all about.
“I was standing outside and I was the only one working that day. I actually saw the wreck at the intersection of John Sevier Highway and Martin Mill,” he remembers. “A dump truck full of hot asphalt hit a T-top Camaro and the asphalt was dumped onto and into the car. I thought to myself – ‘Someone’s got to help them’ – and I realized I was that someone. I jumped into the engine and got there. It was like 500 feet from the station.”
He was only 22. The driver was badly burned. He vividly remembers the man looking at him, grabbing his arm and saying, “Don’t let me die in this car.” Kear says he began working and got the man out of the car. Lifestar airlifted him to UT Medical Center and then flew him on to the Vanderbilt Medical Center Burn Center. The man died four days later.
“I woke up at that moment and realized what I was doing and what this job was all about. You can’t fake what we do. It’s not just a job. It’s a lot more than wearing a shirt that says Rural Metro,” he says. “We all see a lot of what no one else wants to see or do in caring for and helping people. A lot of it stays with you.”
In 1994, Kear was promoted to lieutenant and became the public information officer for the Knox County Fire Prevention Bureau through a partnership with Rural Metro. He was making TV appearances and videos, handling marketing and speaking at schools and businesses.
In 2010, he was promoted to captain and was on an engine. For two years he headed up the department’s fire training programs, and in 2016, Rural Metro Chief Jerry Harnish promoted him to battalion chief over West Knox County.
As he talked about that promotion and where he is today, he mentioned three mentors, three Rural Metro veterans who schooled him in the basics and kept him focused on his education and his work – the late Richard Berrier, David Stooksbury and Doug Emerson. “I have three captains I work with now and helping them with their career development is my passion,” he said. “It’s paying it back.”
And now his son, Raece, 15, who home schools himself, may be following in dad’s footsteps. He is in the Knoxville Fire Department’s Explorer program.
This man loves his work, and the people he works with. “I do love it. Best job I’ve ever had. It’s the passion of the people I work with. This is my family right here – the guys and the gals,” he said.
Away from Station 10, he has two relaxing hobbies – motorcycling and making handmade leather products. He rides a big Harley Soft Tail Hog and has a vintage 1976 Yamaha MX-125 dirt bike. Six months ago, he opened a company at his home – the Bull Duke Leather Co. He makes custom products for those in the fire and law enforcement communities. You can see what he crafts at his website here.
He has been thinking ahead to retirement – at some point. “I want to do something peaceful and simple. I want a way of life without someone’s life being on the line. I’m thinking about having a shrimp boat. That’s my next story,” he said.
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and has been the editor of two newspapers. He writes this Monday column – Our Town Heroes – for KnoxTNToday.com. Suggest future stories at [email protected] or 865-659-3562.