“The guardians of our community.”
It’s not the name of a movie nor a video game. It’s not a cliché to the man who said it …. or just another catchy slogan. It’s serious business, life or death, every day, every hour, every minute, every second.
The man who said it and who means it is Jeffery Charles Devlin. At work he’s known as Assistant Chief of Operations Jeff Devlin, the second-in-command for Rural Metro Fire who works under Chief Jerry Harnish, a man he says “is like a brother to me.”
Devlin, 51, a 32-year veteran of Rural Metro. was promoted to this position in July 2019. He manages all aspects of the fire department day-to-day as second in command – all emergency medical services, rescue, hazardous materials and fire suppression operations. He manages all 18 stations, supervises 200-plus employees, including all shift battalion chiefs who report directly to him.
“I’m responsible for all deployment schemes at the stations, which engines and trucks run out of which stations and how we perform at our jobs,” he says. “The buck stops with me on how we perform – period. It’s my responsibility, mine, that it’s all done the right way. A lot of people depend on us every day. We are the guardians of our community.”
That “community” is the vast majority of Knox County and the town of Farragut, more than 265,000 people, minus Karns and Hardin Valley, the city of Knoxville and a portion of the county in Seymour.
Devlin “runs calls” now and then, but the job is primarily administrative. The relationships with local governments and the people in the community are things he enjoys. “I like to tell our story, that we’re not supported by taxes but by our subscriptions,” he explains. “I have to help us plan for the future, the demands for service as our county grows and more homes and businesses are built. Covering that costs money and it’s part of my job to plan for that. The job never leaves me and it’s part of the stress, but I don’t let it consume me. I make sure I have a balanced life.”
That balanced life is family and community. His wife is Dr. Joanne B. Devlin, the assistant director of the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center (The Body Farm) and a lecturer in the Anthropology Department. She is also a part-time Rural Metro firefighter. Their son, Liam, just graduated from Webb School and on Thursday evening was named the winner of the 2022 Knox News Sports Awards Lacrosse Player of the Year. His next stop is UT and its lacrosse club team.
The family enjoys camping and Devlin dabbles with working on their cars, a little carpentry and “Yes, I’ll admit it – video games.” The Devlins live in Farragut and he’s a member of the Rotary Club of Farragut.
“Rotary is important to me because of what they do in our community,” he says. Devlin also serves on the town of Farragut’s Board of Zoning Appeals and its Parks and Athletic Council and is president of his neighborhood homeowners’ association. “I want to be more than just a fire chief. I enjoy the life away from the job.”
He’s a native of Long Island, New York, who moved here with his family before his high school senior year. His father, a former FBI special agent, had taken a job in TVA’s Inspector General’s office. “I was not happy about moving here, not at all,” he recalls. He graduated from Farragut High School, class of 1988, and was only 17. “I went to UT and I was too immature for it all,” he says.
He didn’t graduate, not knowing where he’d find his passion.
His late friend, Richard Wells, talked with him about the Rural Metro Fire Academy. A few months passed, he says, and then Wells said that Rural Metro was testing applicants. He took the test and passed, began the academy in September 1990 and graduated in March 1991. Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) school was next. He was a part-time reserve firefighter and lived at the old Station 10.
In 1993 he began working full-time for what was then Rural Metro’s ambulance service, which today is AMR. He stayed on the ambulances for a year. In 1994 he became a fulltime firefighter/paramedic.
“When I began, I was unsure if I could do it. It pushed me to learn the job and I did learn it and loved it and still do,” Devlin said. “I knew pretty quickly that I was good at emergencies and I was always able to stay calm, seeing many horrible things and dealing with all that and bringing order to chaos.”
1998 was an important year. He became a paramedic, was promoted to lieutenant and met his future wife. Ironically, they met at a “fire” of sorts. Devlin was part of a hot house fire drill that year, and Joanne was studying for her doctorate. She showed up to use the training fire to burn a load of pig bones for study and research. On New Year’s Eve 1999 they were married.
Since 1998 he has risen through the ranks to lieutenant, captain, a battalion chief over eight stations and then into this major role he fills today. “I’ve always wanted to be promoted, not for the money, but to have more influence. I really believe in the public private partnerships and Rural Metro is a fantastic fit in our community. My goal was to contribute in a way that had meaning and I hope that’s what I am doing.”
During all of his time working, he didn’t forget about his education. He earned a bachelor’s degree in fire administration from the University of Memphis in 2003 and a master’s degree in safety from the University of Tennessee in 2009. He is a 2014 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and a 2015 Chief Fire Officer designee through the Center for Public Safety Excellence.
The man he called a brother – Chief Harnish – does not mince words about Devlin. “We’ve always known Jeff to be an officer of intelligence and ability and the fact that he competed successfully against 15 candidates from departments in 11 states for his current position confirms it.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 865-659-3562.