Pickel knows the ropes in cave/vertical rescue work

Tom KingNortheast Knox, Our Town Heroes

Wrapped up inside the heart and passions of Trevor Pickel are his family, his faith, his profession, those he helps in a variety of roles, his love of country and his hobbies. It’s always about everyone else and never about him.


Lt. Trevor Pickel of the Knoxville Volunteer Emergency Rescue Squad (KVERS) is 33. He is the team leader of the squad’s 25-member Cave & Vertical Rescue Team. He leads them into caves, leads cliff rescues or going down into pits and holes to save dogs – or whatever may be trapped. Or into trees to rescue dangling “arborists” – tree cutters.

Lt. Trevor Pickel

He’s a Strawberry Plains native, a 2004 Carter High School graduate who joined the Marines right out of high school. When active duty ended, he remained in the Marine Reserves in Johnson City. He’s been a part of KVERS since 2009. (Keep in mind that these jobs and years overlap at times.)

As for his real job, in 2017 Pickel joined the Y-12 Fire Department in Oak Ridge as a paramedic and firefighter. Before moving to Y-12, he was a senior firefighter/paramedic for the Knoxville Fire Department for five years and was its Elks Lodge Firefighter of the Year in 2015.

Since May 2010 he has been a part-time instructor at American Emergency Response Training, teaching rescue training and Confined Space and High Angle Rescue Operations and technician-level classes. He worked both part time and full time with Rural Metro from 2005 until today, and he’s now a part-timer.

Not long after our interview, Pickel sent me a text about our conversation at KVERS headquarters. He began with this: “I know this is a cave rescue story, but I didn’t get to talk about my family and my faith as much as I would’ve liked to.

“My faith in Christ and His help with all of my life’s involvement in rescue and emergency services is number one. He is the only reason I keep it together. My family is amazing and I do it for them. They remind me of the importance of people. Everyone I’ve ever rescued or helped is a son, daughter, mother or father. They are a constant reminder that everyone is worth doing everything you can to help them.”

When you hear someone say “Semper Fi,” you know it’s a Marine, and Pickel indeed was a Marine. He was in for seven years until 2011, and that includes two deployments to Iraq as an infantryman and helping out with medical issues. He is also a critical care paramedic and has earned multiple emergency certifications.

It’s a 37-mile drive from his Strawberry Plains home to work at Y-12 and about the same for wife Emily. Ironically, they work five minutes apart but never ride to work together. She is a kindergarten teacher at Woodland Elementary School in Oak Ridge. These busy parents have three kids – daughter Reagan, 5; daughter Evelyn, 4; and son Canaan, 19 months. They are members at Lyons Creek Baptist Church in Strawberry Plains.

More about Pickel: In 2016 he earned his bachelor’s degree in emergency services management from Bethel University. He was a rock climber as a teen and scaled the Cherokee Bluffs cliffs a few times; has been deep in a limestone cave off Heiskell Avenue that has “massive” rooms in it; and loves to hike solo in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to relieve the stresses of life. He was struck by lightning while hiking at House Mountain when he was a teen. “I was leaning against an old oak tree that got hit, and it hit me. I was knocked out and carried out by the rescue team. The ambulance took me to Children’s Hospital.”

The cave and vertical rescue work is what he calls “low frequency, high risk.” Translation: They don’t get that many calls, but the ones they do get are often dangerous and can be very risky business for everyone involved. He and his team spend more time training than rescuing – which is why they’re so proficient at what they do.

The final part of that text he sent me spoke to the work he does for the squad: “… Leading the team is about being a servant like Christ was for us. Matthew 20:26 is about being the greatest; by being the last of all and putting the needs of people before your own is how to be the best. So that’s what I try to do when leading the team. Putting their needs above all to help anyone who needs our help.”

The training begins with a 40-hour week-long course, and monthly training sessions follow; then there are quarterly all-day sessions covering everything about cave and vertical rescue work and techniques.

His approach to training is based on an Albert Einstein quote: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

He adds to this: “I try to give our people the best opportunity to succeed. The equipment has to be ready. And I may not be around and they have to perform with me not there.”

Lt. Pickel inside the squad’s trailer full of rescue equipment

These cave and vertical rescue pros get excited when you ask them about ropes – and knots. So when he was asked about how many knots he knew, a big smile crept across his face. Name some of them. So he did!

“The Figure 8, and the Figure 8 on a bike. Bowline knot. Alpine Butterfly. Double Fishermen Bend. Figure 8 bend. Water Knot bend. We have hitches, too, where we tie the rope onto an object. And a knot is self-sufficient and a bend is where you knot two ropes together. And our team members have to master these knots as well.”

But ropes are inherently safe, he says. “It seems dangerous, but if you’re careful and know what you’re doing, the risks go way down. When I was in high school I didn’t like the physics and geometry classes, but today figuring out the physics and geometry of a rescue system with ropes and a tripod and the angles and weights fascinates me.”

Pickel will be in Camp Rivervale, Ind., May 11-18 for the 2019 National Cave Rescue Commission’s “week-long” seminar. This annual seminar on Cave Rescue Operations and Management serves as a “boot camp” of cave rescue and involves three levels of training.  One other member of the squad is going with him – Paul Campbell.

When talking with Pickel, one gets the feeling this “work” he does was part of his DNA from birth. “I’ve always loved ropes and climbing, but I was really excited about fighting fires and being a paramedic, and now I do them all,” he says. “I love and enjoy it all.”

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.

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