Robby Copas does not like to talk about Robby Copas. He’ll talk about what he does and who he does it with and why he loves it all. When the baseball cap comes off, he resembles Mr. Clean of the TV commercials, sans the gray eyebrows.
Around the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD), he’s called Chief Copas. He is one of the 12 assistant fire chiefs “on a car,” as they are called. His car is 83, and he’s the C-shift boss working out of Station 18 on Weisgarber Road, just off Papermill Drive. On that shift he is responsible for “everything from Sequoyah Hills to Turkey Creek,” he says.
But in late February the other KFD hat he wears kept him and his 12-person team busy – very busy – in other parts of town. That other hat he wears is as the leader of the department’s Swift-Water Rescue Team. The flooding that hit Knoxville and Knox County in February had his team scrambling.
He was off on Saturday, Feb. 23, when the worst of the flooding hit the city and county. He was at Sevierville Middle School for daughter Annetta’s basketball game. Or so he thought. His phone message said to report in. It was around 9:15 a.m.
Dispatch sent them to Concord Street between Kingston Pike and Sutherland Avenue. First Creek flows through there, and that morning it was really flowing. At the bottom of the hill it was an estimated 4.5 to 5 feet deep and fast moving, between a Class 1 and Class 2 rapids, he says. A minivan was in the water, and a man and woman were trapped inside. The water was up to the bottom of the windshield, and it had pushed the minivan up against a guardrail.
Copas, 49, and his team arrived about 10:40 a.m., assessed the situation and set up their safety and rescue rope system. Capt. Hugh Laxton was the downstream safety valve. In the rescue raft in a driving rain were Capt. Matt Beavers, Master Firefighter Brad Elliott and Senior Firefighters J.P. Plante and Jordan Adcox. “They got out to the car about 11 a.m.,” Copas recalls, saying the vehicle was about 140 yards from dry roadbed. “The driver was an Uber driver with a female passenger. Our team talked with them and had to take the windshield off to get them out of the van.”
Here is a video of them being brought to safety.
“They were lucky,” he says. “Right below where they stopped was a strainer. If they had gotten washed through, it could have killed them both.” A strainer in this sense is defined as an entrapment hazard that water can flow through but not other objects without being crushed.
The man and woman were placed in an ambulance and taken to the hospital with minor injuries and early-stage hypothermia.
“The team reset and we were quickly assigned to another rescue,” Copas says. By midnight the team had performed between 20 and 30 rescues. Members of the team also include Capt. Dennis Hurst, Capt. John Steele and Master Firefighters Matthew Cataline, Mark Lane, Al Ludwig and Linny Blair.
He says that the department plans to increase the swift-water rescue team to 20 members. The team was first formed in 2014. There are two four-person teams on each shift, and each team has two boats available.
Copas says he really enjoys his work because of the teamwork involved. “This is nothing but teamwork, and we all love to help people. We don’t want to see people suffer or lose things important to them. We’re a brotherhood, and it takes mental toughness to do what we do. We’re trying to make calm out of chaos.”
Kingsport native Copas is a graduate of Sullivan North High School where he played fullback and linebacker. He didn’t grow up wanting to be a fireman. He wanted to be in the military. His two grandfathers served in World War II, and he has a brother in the U.S. Marine Corps.
After high school he joined the Air Force and served 22 years and 10 months in the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard. After 9/11 he was deployed and served in both Egypt and Iraq.
He was promoted to assistant chief on Christmas Day 2016. He has been with the KFD for 20 years. In 2015 he was a captain when he and Cataline were honored as the department’s Firefighters of the Year. They went to South Carolina during the historic October 2015 floods. South Carolina was devastated by widespread, torrential flooding that killed 19, isolated or stranded thousands of others, broke 17 dams and closed almost 400 roads and bridges.
Copas, Cataline and KFD Deputy Chief Gary Compton responded to the call for help. During their six days there, Copas and Cataline, along with a third Tennessee firefighter, paddled out approximately 300 yards into floodwaters to rescue an elderly woman who had been stranded by the rising water. They also assisted with other water rescues and checked homes and abandoned vehicles.
Copas also was in Houston in August 2017 when Hurricane Harvey brought “500-year” rainfall and flood conditions to the entire Houston area. He and six members of the KFD team spent almost two weeks there.
Copas has a 45-minute drive to and from work, give or take. He and his family live in Kodak and are very active at First Baptist Church of Sevierville. And the family will get him talking. Wife Sabrina is home-schooling their school-age children. Son Tyler is 25 and has followed his father into the emergency-services business. He is a deputy at the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department. Luke is 17, Annetta is 12 and Olivia is 10.
Luke’s name has been in the news before this. In 2010, the then-8-year-old presented a small manuscript he had written about the RMS Titanic to Mary Kellogg-Joslyn, co-owner of the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge. It was a child’s encyclopedia of all things Titanic, drawn from research, reality and his vivid imagination. “He has an amazing talent,” Kellogg-Joslyn said. Unbeknownst to him, she made a few calls and landed him a book deal!
“They’re all good kids and that’s Mom’s doing, not mine,” Copas says. “They get their smarts from her, for sure.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-services professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, please email Tom King or call him at (865) 659-3562.