When Knoxville Fire Department Asst. Chief Keith Pollard saw the smoke from Station 11’s bay around 1:10 p.m., he knew he was headed to a big fire. “It’s the biggest fire I’ve ever seen and worked in my 22 years here,” he says.
It was Wednesday, May 1, at 1:10 p.m. when the Station 11 alarm sounded. The fire was at the Fort Loudon Waste & Recycling Center at 2742 Hancock St. in the Oakwood Lincoln Park neighborhood, less than 10 minutes from the station. Chief Pollard’s Car 82 arrived by 1:20. One engine from Station 14 had just pulled in after laying lines going into the fire. Capt. Shawn Langley on Engine 3 was there just before Pollard.
Once there, Pollard was the incident commander in charge of positioning the firefighters and their equipment, calling for more engines and ladders, ordering the evacuation of neighborhood residents, shutting down the nearby Norfolk Southern Railway tracks and closing streets.
Pollard, 46, quickly saw what firefighters were facing. He positioned engines on each side of the tin-roof building and one in front of the fire to contain it. “I initially thought we could stop it there, but after 20 to 25 minutes and looking at the fire load, I knew we needed more water and equipment to contain it,” he recalls.
The first four engines and a ladder truck were quickly joined by the cavalry. Eventually, it took 13 pumper trucks and six ladder trucks to get the fire under control and out, after pouring slightly more than 7 million gallons of water on the smoldering mass of paper and plastic products and everything else there for recycling.
The heavy black smoke plumes could be seen miles away.
“It took us four to five hours to contain this fire, and we stayed ahead of it,” he explains. “It was like a game of chess, moving the manpower and trucks and water around to where they were needed. I was very happy, tickled to death really, that we contained this fire in those first five to six hours. We were determined to protect the neighborhood.”
KPD Capt. D.J. Corcoran says arson inspectors suspect that a backfire from a forklift is what started this major fire that eventually covered two acres, forced the evacuation of 100 homes and shut down 13 residential blocks. It took three full days to extinguish the fire, and it was finally declared as out on Saturday, May 4.
“I consider the job that our department did on this fire to be a big success,” Pollard says. “We contained it so it didn’t spread beyond the business to the neighborhood, and nobody was hurt. We had one firefighter who stepped in a hole and sprained an ankle, and that was it.”
Over the life of the fire, 125 firefighters battled the blaze and 65 members of the Knoxville Police Department handled traffic, security of the evacuated neighborhood, and access in and out of the fire area.
It was a long and tiring week for Pollard, but battling fire is what he loves to do. “I’m 46, but my adrenaline still flows. I love to go to fires, and I want to go so I can be there to protect people and their properties. I like to help people, and I’m also taking care of my guys.”
When he was relieved at 11 p.m. that first day of the fire it was back to Station 11 for rest and maybe sleep. He was back the next morning by 6.
Pollard works out of Station 11 at 2600 Whittle Springs Road. But he’s also the assistant chief over Stations 3, 4, 6 and 16 as well as Station 11 on the department’s Blue Shift schedule. “Pretty much I’m over everything on the east side of town,” he says. When alarms come in to any of those stations for major fires, building or commercial alarms, house fires and major accidents, he’s on the road headed that way.
“Chief Pollard is a true asset to our department. His knowledge and understanding of fire behavior was a benefit to the department and the citizens he protected the day of the recycling center fire,” says Corcoran.
Pollard is a homegrown professional, reared in the Carter community and still living there. He graduated from Carter High School in 1991 and had plans for medical school. He attended classes at Pellissippi State Community College and the University of Tennessee as a pre-med student. He dropped out and went to work for Rural Metro as a firefighter in 1993. He attended Roane State to earn his EMT certification and then earned his paramedic credentials. In February 1997 he attended the KFD Fire Academy and became a firefighter/paramedic. From there he was promoted to captain in 2005 and to assistant chief in 2011.
There seems to be a pipeline from Carter High to the KFD. He says he knows of at least five other Carter grads in the department: Capt. Lonnie Glenn, Assistant Chief Brent Seymour, Capt. Richard Gibson, Capt. Shawn Langley and Capt. Joey Jones. “There may be a few I’ve forgotten about,” he says.
He does not like to discuss specific calls or emergencies but says the ones involving fatalities, children and fellow firefighters are the ones that get to him. “I know that death is part of our business, but it is hard sometimes. When those things do happen we come back to the station and talk to one another and share our feelings and thoughts,” he says. “We’re a tight-knit group here. When I hear the ‘mayday’ call from a firefighter my adrenaline really flows because it means he’s in trouble and he’s trained not to get into those situations. But sometimes unexpected things can happen.”
His real stress-relieving medicine is his family – wife Rebecca, a nurse who teaches health science at Carter High; daughter Kelsy, 20, a cosmetologist; and son Bryson, 12, moving up to the eighth grade at Carter Middle. Bryson is his fishing and hunting buddy.
“He’s my fishing partner, and we fish a lot on Douglas Lake and other places, too,” he says. “We go down to Middle Tennessee to hunt deer, turkeys, dove and ducks mostly. We have some great times together, and I’m blessed.”
Pollard works to maintain a balance in his life, but he clearly loves what he does at work. “I’ve been very satisfied with my career choice. No complaints at all. A lot of people don’t like their jobs, but I love coming to work every day. And I love all of the guys I work with.”
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.