“Anyone with some introspection knows that real accomplishment depends on others, and the greater the accomplishment, the greater the number of participants. What I am gratified to know is that, over almost five decades, we’ve been able to assemble a team of unusual people for whom service to the community is the guiding principle. You could say that about a number of teams in this town. This team, though, is also an exceptional and careful steward of the public’s resources, and it has embraced change as an essential element of professional practice. That is rare. And I am ever proud to have been a part. – Rural Metro Fire Chief Jerry Harnish
It’s not every day that you meet someone like Jerry Harnish. Since he was 22 and straight out of Emory & Henry University, his life’s passion and profession have been community fire protection and emergency service. In 1980, someone very smart hired Harnish into the world of Rural Metro. He’s still there.
Maybe you don’t recognize his name. But most in the firefighting business here and around Tennessee know it. Harnish, 63, is THE chief of Rural Metro, and sitting in the chief’s chair now for 14 years and with Rural Metro for 41 years.
He is quiet and soft-spoken, a man who chooses words carefully and enjoys listening vs. talking. His quote above is vintage Harnish and is the answer he gave when asked what he’s proudest of about his career. Notice the pronoun “I” is used only twice – and not about Jerry Harnish, but leading into comments about those he works with and their team members.
It’s never about him.
This dean of the fire chiefs around these parts works out of his office at Rural Metro Fire Headquarters, upstairs at Station 41 on Campbell Station Road in Farragut. His office is not neat, but organized and “guarded” by his sweet 13-year-old pooch Beanie the Beagle. The chief and Beanie are buddies, seldom far apart.
“Forty-one years. It’s been a blast and still is,” he says. “We attract good people who are motivated by public service and I think public service is still regarded as a noble pursuit. Our real challenge is how do we sustain our service as this explosive population growth is not slowing down.”
He cited the Choto area in far West Knox County as an example. Between 2000 and 2010 more than 4,000 people moved into single-family homes and condos there. Choto continues to grow. The nearest Rural Metro station was five miles away. That affected insurance rates. In 2015, Rural Metro built its new Choto Station 42 – assuring fire and medical coverage and dropping insurance rates.
In 1976, Harnish graduated from Farragut High School. Then it was off to Emory & Henry in Emory, Virginia. He earned a degree in political science, not knowing what he would do with that degree. “I know now that a lot of what I learned in those classes I use today in this job and the politics around it. I learned that desire and reality are not the same thing.”
His rise at Rural Metro was fast. He spent six years as a firefighter/emergency medical technician working on engines at various stations in the county. In 1987, he was promoted to captain and in 1989 to district chief, then in 2002 to division chief (one of two in that role) and then to chief in ’07.
Harnish manages a $20 million budget, a staff of 240 and 16 fully staffed stations, 24/7/365. Rural Metro serves a county-only population of approximately 285,000 residents and approximately 240,000 are covered by Rural Metro. Around 80% of its calls are medically related and the other 20% are fire responses.
He’s also a cancer survivor. In 1986, he underwent surgery and then chemotherapy for an abdominal tumor that was removed. The tumor returned in 2020 and he went through three months of chemo. The tumor disappeared.
Harnish and his three younger brothers were Army brats. His father, also Jerry, was a U.S. Army flight trauma surgeon who survived Vietnam. They moved a lot. He recalls homes in Virginia, Colorado, Washington State and Texas. After his Army career, his father became a pediatrician and recently retired from his practice in Houston. He’s 85. His mother, Barbara, lives here. His brothers were all reserve firefighters at Rural Metro.
“He’s a mentor to me and to all of our officers – actually to everyone,” says Capt. Jeff Bagwell, Rural Metro’s public information officer. “He’s a confidant. You can call him at 10 at night and he’ll help you. He’ll help anyone. His wisdom is amazing. He has everyone’s respect in our organization.”
Bagwell labels Harnish’s style as “persistent leadership.”
Chief Harnish’s job is big and pressure-packed. How does he wind down? “I read. A lot. History mainly. Oh, and I love watching Marvel movies.”
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 call him at 865-659-3562.