John Dodson: Assistant chief is ‘support staff’

Tom KingOur Town Heroes, West Knox

Like it or not, many students pretty much blow off high school health class. Not John Dodson. In the mid-1980s he was a junior at Bearden High School when an ambulance crew came to class. That experience shaped his life.

That teen-age boy today is Asst. Chief John Dodson of the Knoxville Fire Department. He just turned 49 and is in his 25th year of emergency services. “I have enjoyed this career, everything about it, and they say it’s not really work if you love it and I have loved it from the start,” Dodson says. “I always look forward to coming to work.”

For 16 years he was a “hero” first responder on ambulances for Rural Metro, and on fire engines as a KFD firefighter, master firefighter and captain. In 2005, he was promoted to the captain’s rank. There’s more. He’s also a paramedic and an R.N. – yep, registered nurse.

In June 2020 the big promotion came – KFD Chief Stan Sharp, a training academy classmate of Dodson’s, elevated him to assistant chief over the department’s Emergency Medical Services Division. Major job. Important job. Here’s why:

  • He oversees all of the daily medical operations of the department.
  • He is responsible for training all EMTs, advance EMTs, and paramedics at KFD’s 20 engine companies and the approximate 325-plus firefighters, assuring all protocols and state regulations are met and followed.
  • He’s responsible for quality assurance on all medical calls. Or as he says: “Making sure our guys are doing the right things on all med calls.” And on average approximately 80% of all emergency response calls are medically related.
  • He makes sure all engines and trucks have the required medical supplies on board along with medical cardiac heart monitors – and that it’s all in working order.
  • He establishes instant action contingency plans to ensure the safety of large crowds congregating downtown around the holidays and throughout the year at major events, even at UT football games. The plans include getting emergency vehicles in and out of crowds; assuring clear communications with hospitals and dispatch; and what to do in the event of sudden, extreme weather. He says in a normal summer his team typically works between 30 and 40 events a month.

And COVID-19 has, of course, impacted his work and the department. The N-95 masks are required on every medical call along with the special yellow disposable gowns and safety gloves. He says about 50% of the training is done virtually via Zoom now and says, “That has been a problem because the most effective training is in person and hands on.”

In 2012, Dodson came off the daily firefighter work and worked at the KFD fire training center for two years before transferring to EMS as one of two captains in the division, a job he had for six years prior to his promotion to assistant chief.

Dodson has two captains on staff – Buddy Gibson and Michael Terrill. Gibson is the quality improvement officer and deals with supplies, and Terrill is the training instructor coordinator and runs the EMT program.

Dodson’s wife, Katherine, is a nurse practitioner and son Logan, 26, is a firefighter/paramedic for Rural Metro. They also have four kids at home – twin girls, 11, a 13-year-old daughter, and a son, 17. Their home is a busy place.

Dodson still loves his work. “It’s still the same job. … doing our jobs so our firefighters and medical staff can function on the front lines. We’re their support staff.

“When I was on engines and in the field, I didn’t think about what people were doing in the offices and behind the scenes. Now I know. Without the administration you can’t get the equipment bought and the hiring and promoting done or the training. The training we do and the training at the fire center is a tough job. But it’s the key to what we all do – being properly trained.”

And all of this from a high school health class.

Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. He writes this Monday column – Our Town Heroes –for Suggest future stories at or call him at 865-659-3562.

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