Larry Wilder: Fire prevention guru

Tom KingHalls, Our Town Heroes

Larry Wilder has two bosses to please while doing the same job for both with equal passion, dedication and his incredible sense of responsibility.

His job title is “fire & life safety educator team leader.” If you boil down to three words, it might be “Mr. Fire Prevention” or “fire prevention guru.”

His bosses are Asst. Chief Rick Herrell with Rural Metro Fire and Kathy Saunders, Knox County’s Fire Marshal and head of the County Fire Prevention Bureau. We’ll be hearing from them in a bit.

Wilder’s life is wrapped around a few things:

  • Son Cameron, a Halls High School graduate, 22, is an equipment operator for Knox County Engineering and Public Works and will be married in 2024. Wilder reared Cameron since birth as a single parent. “Cameron is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
  • The education of Knox County residents of all ages about how to avoid fires at home, at school, at work, in recreational settings … or almost anywhere.
  • His love of fly fishing and teaching others how to catch those elusive brown trout.
  • His devotion to his faith that he says has guided every aspect of his life.

Rural Metro and the county have an agreement. Each pays 50% of his salary. Both say he’s worthy of their investment. And he has two uniforms, matching them with his daily work locations.

Larry Wilder

It may require an algorithm to calculate how many eyes and ears of kids and adults have seen and heard his fire prevention messages and advice during the last 20 years.

Annually, he is in the classes of Knox County schools, at senior citizen centers and retirement homes, assisted living and nursing homes, at civic groups and businesses, manufacturing plants, homeowners’ associations, and in home safety checks of Rural Metro subscription members. In short, if you gather, he will come.

This native of Middlesboro, Kentucky, says in 2022 he estimates he and his co-workers made approximately 300-plus presentations and reached around 47,000 people in all nooks and crannies of the county.

“He is so dedicated to his mission it makes all of our jobs easier,” says his county boss Saunders. “Jerry Harnish (Rural Metro’s chief) and I will go to him with an idea about something we should look into and he’s ahead of us. He’s already thought about it. The curriculum and who should hear it. He’s amazing. He’s a great teacher. His can-do attitude is contagious.”

She added: He works without an ego. He’s willing to take on any project given to him and run with it. He’s efficient and effective. “Larry can work with anyone – the fire and arson investigators, firefighters, the public, anyone. He always welcomes feedback and wants you to punch holes in his ideas to make them better. That’s a rare trait.”

Wilder did not dream of being a fire educator. After graduating from the University of Kentucky with bachelor’s degrees in business and communications, he returned to Middlesboro and for seven years worked at Sherwin Williams Paint as a territory manager. His next job was as a business analyst for Dunn & Bradstreet in Louisville. Three years was all he could take.

Wilder, one of six children, had a brother working as a firefighter in Cleveland, Ohio. They talked. His brother tried to convince him to move to Cleveland. Too far away and too cold he decided. So, he came to Knoxville to attend EMT (emergency medical technician) School, learn Advanced Life Support and become a paramedic.Rural Metro was still running the ambulances that AMR runs today. He was hired as a part-timer on ambulances. For two years he commuted – he worked a 14-hour shift, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. – and then drove 90 minutes back to Middlesboro, grabbed a few hours of sleep and left around 6 or 6:30 a.m. for the drive back and the next shift.

Then life really got busy. He moved to Knoxville in 2000, got married and in 2001 his son was born. Then a divorce and all of a sudden, he was a single parent of an infant. He needed a job with regular hours and weekends off. “I would have had to work three part-time jobs to make ends meet,” he says. “Then in 2003, Kathy Saunders called and offered me this job with the county. Again, God has taken care of me. They needed a fire educator and I’d never imagined being in such a job.”

Much of Wilder’s time is spent in the county’s low income, low socio-economic neighborhoods and places with older homes whose residents may not be able to afford Rural Metro protection or even smoke detectors.

“Our targets vary and change. We’re all about fire safety and saving lives. It’s a great collaboration of our resources.

“Everyone contributes. I can’t do this by myself.

“Statistically, we know we’re making a difference. Knox County is the lowest in the state for lives and property damage totals,” he said, “and that’s due to everyone – Codes Enforcement, our fire and arson inspectors, the men and women fighting the fires. All of us.

He spends 95% of his time in the field. His truck is his office. He creates curriculum. He plans just as all teachers must. Scheduling is a big part of the job. Plus answering emails. No vacation since 2009. When Rural Metro Capt. Jeff Bagwell is unavailable, Wilder takes over his public information job.

He thrives on meeting young adults today who remember his presentations from his yesterdays. “They come up and say ‘Hey, I remember you. Fire class.’ And they pay attention and go home and educate their parents about fire safety. I love that.”

Wilder also thrives on his stress-relieving weekends working at Orvis Outdoor Outfitters in Sevierville teaching people how to fly fish. But he really thrives when he’s in a cold-water creek or river flipping that fly rod. “I’ve been fly fishing since I was a kid,” he says.

“God put this all together for me. I love it every day. We’re making a difference for people. I work with amazing men and women who are amazingly talented. God put me where he wanted me to be and He lets me be happy doing it.”

Chief Herrell, his Rural Metro boss, tells it like it is. “Larry’s legacy will be the impact he has had on hundreds and hundreds who felt more educated after encountering Larry. To this day, my adult daughters talk about ‘Mr. Larry’ and the time he spent with them as elementary students on fire safety. He is indeed an asset to Rural Metro, but more so to the citizens of Knox County.”

Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia. If you have someone you think we should consider featuring, please email him at the link with his name or text him at 865-659-3562.


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