Jeff French’s DNA did its job. Life and career were mapped out before his birth on December 5, 1985. He was destined for a life in public service, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great grandfather.
“I dreamed about working for the KFD since I was a little boy,” the Knoxville native says. “I used to listen to my grandfather’s stories and he took me to most of the fire stations.”
In 2022, Jeff French is serving his 12th year at the Knoxville Fire Department, working at Station 20 in West Knoxville as a hazardous materials specialist and a master firefighter, loving his work and his life. It takes a special kind of public servant to risk their life working with hazardous materials.
These are the best of times for “Frenchie” – as he’s known around KFD – and for wife Laura, an operating room nurse at the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, working in the hospital’s west surgery center on Westland Drive. Two busy professionals are juggling jobs and family with sons Huxley (Hux), 6, and Cooper (Coop), 18 months.
Now, about his public service DNA …
French’s father, Larry, spent 32 years with the Tennessee Highway Patrol and retired in 2009. Today he provides security for the U.S. District Court for East Tennessee. His grandfather was the late D.K. Ford, who retired in 1977 as a KFD captain after 30 years. Sherman Ford, his great grandfather, was a KFD firefighter in the 1920s and 1930s.
French was reared in Halls and graduated from Halls High School in 2004. He received a band scholarship from the University of Tennessee to play percussion in the Pride of the Southland Band and stayed for a year. He left to attend Pellissippi State Community College to take TV video production classes and then worked at WBIR for six years as a cameraman, production assistant and in master control.
But joining KFD was still working on him. From WBIR he became part-time at Rural Metro in Blount County driving ambulances, taking the time to get his EMT (emergency medical technician) license at Roane State Community College. In April 2010, he attended the KFD Training Academy, graduated in October 2010 and began work at Station 18. While at KFD he worked part-time at the Gatlinburg Fire Department for seven years.
He’s a very busy professional. He has a second job in the tourist season, working as an EMT two days a week at Dollywood’s Splash Country. He also teaches haz mat classes for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) and basic haz mat skills to the new KFD academy recruits. In April 2022, he earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration and is now enrolled in Louisiana State University’s MBA program.
His love for the hazardous materials assignment began at Station 18 on Weisgarber Road when the driver of the haz mat truck moved out of town. He jumped into the driver’s seat in 2014 and is still there. The haz mat truck was shifted to Station 20 and he went with it. It is KFD’s only haz mat truck and responds to all haz mat calls, commercial or residential, in Knoxville and to all accidents involving large commercial vehicles – 18 wheelers and the like, buses and large camping rigs. They respond to all fire calls out of Station 20 in west Knoxville and serve as the search and rescue teams entering structures looking for any occupants, alive or dead, as the firefighting begins. French and the other haz mat technicians average making three to four “runs” per 24-hour shift.
“I love what I do because it’s sort of the unknown, what substances are leaking and where and there is a kind of a detective side to it,” he explained. “It’s not as simple as being a firefighter because you first have to figure out what the chemical is and then how to contain it. It’s been exciting for me.”
Here is a laundry list of what they deal with: various types of chemical spills, natural gas leaks, leaks of any suspicious products, white powder calls that require wearing their haz mat suits to test for the deadly drug Fentanyl. And he’s done that several times now. Those and other operations require French and the other haz mat techs to wear safety suits. Both are bright orange (of course) and heavy. One suit is lighter and the heavier suit, which they call “Moon Man” suits, are used for the very dangerous and hazardous materials and weigh about 20 pounds.
“They’re hot in the summer and the big drawbacks are visibility and maneuverability. It’s hard to see and move in those things,” he said.
The public never sees much of his and the other techs’ behind-the-scenes work. They conduct safety training with the companies that are part of the Middlebrook Pike Fuel Farm where the gigantic gasoline tanks are located. They cover safety procedures six times a year for Shell Oil, Colonial Pipeline, Kinder Morgan Fuel Co., BP and Citgo. He also does safety evaluations for Dow Chemical, CSX Railroad, Y-12, ORNL and KUB for natural gas leaks.
His work, he says, like most others, is far more technical today.
“It’s a very high-tech world we live and work in today and you have to know how it all works,” French explained. “It has gotten a lot more complicated. These chemical companies are always inventing new products and the detection equipment we use is much more complex.”
Firefighting, rescue work and answering all accident calls is stressful in and of itself. His stress “reliefs” are collecting sports cards, golf, going to the mountains with his family and playing with Hux in the Little River in Townsend.
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.