Rick Herrell: Firefighting to spreadsheets

Tom KingHalls, Our Town Heroes

For 22 years he was doing what he loved. He worked outside, with people and for people, as a firefighter, then as a lieutenant, a captain and a battalion chief. In 2013, he turned in his fire gear for a briefcase, a laptop, spreadsheets and an external hard drive. And a new job – assistant chief for administration for Rural Metro in Knox County.

He recalls a conversation with his father years ago. “He asked me what I wanted to do for a career and I said something that keeps me outside. I love camping, being in the outdoors,” he says. So after graduating from Clinton High School, he enrolled at the University of Tennessee and in 1993 he earned his degree in forestry.

Rick Herrell

“I didn’t have a lot of direction in my life then and in 1991 while at UT I decided to try firefighting and got into Rural Metro’s Fire Academy. “After I was there two weeks, I knew this is what I’d do for the rest of my life.” He’s 52 now and Sept. 2 will mark his 30th year with Rural Metro.

Today, he’s the department’s chief bean counter … and much more. He’s tucked into the corner office, steps away from his boss’s office, Chief Jerry Harnish, on the backside of Rural Metro’s Station 16 on Campbell Station Road in Farragut. Across the room is the office of Jeff Devlin, the assistant chief of operations.

Herrell’s work includes overseeing the department’s financials, budget and payroll, Human Resources, benefits for 240 or so employees, managing worker compensation claims, dealing with insurance companies and serving on the Health and Safety Committee.

And his bean counting job fits in at home. Wife Michelle is a CPA.

“What can I say? I like spreadsheets. And I like to be on plan with my budgets and numbers,” he says. “I see my role as making sure that our women and men can perform the mission and do their jobs, that they’re equipped properly and paid and don’t have to worry about these things.”

Herrell knows the fire and emergency services business inside and out. He worked out of Station 30 in Halls as a live-in reserve firefighter, at Station 44 on Watt Road, Station 10 on Parkside Drive and Station 27 in the Forks of the River. From 2008 to 2013 he was battalion chief over the West Knoxville operations.

He admits that he misses those good old days when he was in the middle of emergency operations. “I don’t get to touch the community like I used to. But I like to think I make a difference in their lives doing what I do now,” he says. “I get job satisfaction every day, like solving a problem for an employee so they can get back to work and not stress over it.

“And of course, I miss hanging out at the stations with the other firefighters. We share our lives, make great friendships, our families get close,” he says. “But we’re all on a journey and growing in our careers. When I was a captain, I started working on spreadsheets and I literally had no idea I’d love it so.”

Rural Metro Chief Jerry Harnish wanted us to know that this man still shows up on fire calls. “The last two big fires we had he was there for four to five hours,” Harnish said. “He also visits our stations and talks with our people to stay in touch. Rick was here when we didn’t have much and he’s the kind of warrior that we built this organization around.”

A fellow longtime Rural Metro employee refers to him as “the glue that makes this department run, behind the scenes.”

What about that Chief Harnish? “I think I would agree with that assessment 100%. Someone has to do the unfun work behind a desk for hours to make us successful and Chief Herrell is that man.”

Tom King writes Our Town Heroes each Monday. Suggest future stories at tking535@gmail.com or call him at 865-659-3562.

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