It’s Christmas Day 2023 and Asst. Chief David Gray’s wish list is one we pray is today’s reality – no children injured enjoying their newest toys from Santa Claus, no fires to fight, no bad vehicle accidents, no fatalities, no heart attacks, no one falling at home and safe travels for those traveling for the holidays.
He added one more: “Please remember your public servants who are on duty away from family and friends on Christmas Day.”
Chief Gray, 59, is the C Shift commander for the East District of the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD). He leads crews at seven stations out of his “office” at Station 11. On this most major of all holidays, he is a Hero in our book along with his fellow KFD professionals, their counterparts at Rural Metro Fire, the Knoxville Police Department, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, the Seymour Volunteer Fire Department, AMR Ambulances and all of our emergency responders.
During his 40-plus years he’s worked many holidays and caught his share of Christmas shifts. It’s what they all do. They’re there if we need them, no matter the day, the holiday, the weather. When the alarm goes off, they go.
Gray and his two brothers and sister were born and reared in the Carter community. He graduated from Carter High School in 1982 and they all lived on the big family farm – or the “old homeplace” as he calls it. His parents – Lyle and Mary – opened Gray’s Automotive Repair Shop in 1962. Lyle did the repairs, Mary the books. They’re retired now but the shop isn’t. Gray’s brother Roy runs the business today.
His career as an emergency first responder began in high school when he was in the Rural Metro Explorer Post. Here’s what happened next: “I turned 18 my senior year and was hired as a reserve firefighter on my birthday. I went fulltime with Rural Metro when I turned 19. At that time Rural Metro was all one-man engines, meaning you worked by yourself – the driver, firefighter, captain. You did it all. You had to be 19 to drive at Rural Metro per their insurance. This couldn’t happen today.”
He spent 13 years with Rural Metro but made the decision to try and find a slot at KFD. “Knoxville Fire had better benefits and pay and I had a family to support.” He was hired in 1994 and entered the KFD Fire Academy that year, one of 22 students.
Of those 22, only four are still with the department and all are assistant chiefs. Through the years he’s worked at six stations. He was promoted to captain in 2008 and to assistant chief in 2013.
He has an associate degree from Roane State Community College and a bachelor’s in management/organizational behavior from Tusculum University. He is a Fire Officer 4, an executive fire officer and an EMT/paramedic.
Gray has always been about improving his leadership skills and education. He recently graduated from the prestigious National Fire Academy Executive Fire Program. This four-year program is widely recognized as the top school for fire department executives and is considered a master’s degree-level program. His class began in 2018 with 100 selected out of 400 applicants.
When you’ve worked more than 40 years as a first responder, you experience many unpleasant things. “Sure, I’ve seen a lot of fire deaths, trauma deaths, adults and kids dead and critically injured in car accidents, and farm accidents, and shootings … but seeing the children is the most emotional,” he said. “I’ve seen it all.”
That brought back a horrible memory of a fire that destroyed a two-story farmhouse 36 years ago on a cold winter’s night, a call indelibly etched in his memory. “I can see it all right now like it was yesterday all over again in 1987,” he said. “I was with Rural Metro and when we got to the fire the house was fully engulfed. A man and a woman were outside and they couldn’t get their two small kids out. It was between midnight and 1 a.m.”
The second story collapsed and when the fire was out and its ashes had cooled, the gruesome work began “A couple of us at a time took turns digging with small shovels in the ash and rubble to locate the bodies of the kids and we finally found them. It took something like four hours. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen or done. It stays with you forever.”
And they all do it when it has to be done.
“I’m just a servant leader who cares about the people we serve and the people I work with,” he says. “I will help anyone who needs help, someone who’s in need, and I was raised that way. You reach out to help. Recognition does not matter. We all do what we do when we’re needed.”
May the alarms be few and far between … for a silent night!
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.