To Eric Knoefel, helping save a life means he’s just doing his job. That’s not what he takes home with him.
“What I remember the most are the ones I’ve lost through the years,” he says. “That’s the hardest part of my job to deal with, that it didn’t work out for them. I’ve had a lot of people look into my eyes as they were dying, as I held them, and held their hands when they took their last breath. Some were just kids. This job reminds you that God is in charge and not you.”
Knoefel says he can never forget those moments. “I feel like I am supposed to be there for them. Those are the moments I won’t ever forget – ever.”
In several instances, he also has spoken with family members about those last moments. “Those are very personal times talking with family members, and they are very humbling as well. That’s all I can say about that.”
Knoefel, 53, is a captain/firefighter/paramedic for Rural Metro Fire at the agency’s new Station 36 just off Emory Road. He began working for Rural Metro in 1993 on ambulances and in 1995 became a full-time firefighter/paramedic. In the past 24 years he’s seen and experienced a lot.
Around the station he’s known as “Spanky” and no, he’ll not tell the story of how his moniker came to be.
He’s not the only Spanky in town either. That’s Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler’s nickname as well. “I know and respect the sheriff,” he says. “We joke and go back and forth about who was Spanky first. We worked together for a while years ago at the sheriff office’s aviation unit.”
As a fire captain/paramedic, he oversees the day-to-day operations of three fire stations – Station 30 in Halls, the new Station 36 in Powell/Halls (his station) and Station 31 in Powell. He also works as a battalion chief when the chiefs are off duty. “So, he is obviously well thought of and good at what he does,” says Battalion Chief Jerome Rood, Knoefel’s boss. Coincidentally, the two of them were partners for about 18 months when they both began their careers with Rural Metro in East Knoxville in 1995. They’ve pretty much worked together ever since.
As he was getting indoctrinated into the fire service, Knoefel took care of all of his basic fire certifications, ending up as a state-certified fire officer. Next, he was bitten by the hazardous-materials bug.
“Over about a five-year period he went from the very basic hazmat training to becoming a hazardous-materials specialist. This certification is really hard to get,” Rood explains. “Eric has been the leader of our regional hazardous-materials response team over the years.”
Knoefel, the father of three and a grandfather, talks about his life on the job with Rural Metro.
“It’s been all about service, and there are two things that truly matter to me. First, we all share the hard times together and help one another, and second, I’m part of an organization that really helps and serves our community and is much larger than just myself. This is a family here … We’re together for 24-hour shifts and share the burdens. It’s personal. We do it together, and it’s great.”
He’s done it all, too – worked on ambulances and in confined-space rescues and rope rescues, and he also volunteers for the Knoxville Volunteer Emergency Rescue Squad. He is an instructor and hazardous-materials program manager at American Emergency Response Training, a part-time job. He serves on the State and Local Incident Management Team.
Education and training have been priorities. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public safety and emergency management from Grand Canyon University in 2018, graduating magna cum laude. He went through the paramedic training program at Roane State Community College and studied criminal justice at Walters State Community College.
The work can take a physical toll. He’s had to go through three surgeries on his left shoulder to repair torn tendons plus the normal bumps and bruises and cuts that happen.
Prior to Rural Metro, Knoefel served for three years on active duty with the U.S. Army and was a crew chief and mechanic on helicopters. He had one overseas deployment with the Multi-National Force and Observers Unit in Egypt in 1984-85.
In years past he’s volunteered for the Hamblen County and Sevier County rescue squads and worked part-time ambulance jobs in Roane, Scott and Loudon counties – all before going to the Rural Metro Fire Academy in 1995 and going full time for Rural Metro.
Knoefel, a Fountain City resident, loves the days when he can relax fly-fishing for a trout in a Great Smoky Mountains National Park stream or most anywhere he can find them. “I used to tie my own flies but not anymore,” he says. “But I do love fishing.”
He also clearly loves his profession. He knows why, too. “It’s different every day, and I never know what I’m gonna face day in and day out. This is what I have been called to do for our community.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service 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.