They’re both all of 5 feet tall. Both passed out on the third day of Rural Metro Fire Academy training doing the same drill. Both married men who also work in the emergency-services field. One was reared in Fountain City, and the other lives in Fountain City.
If you met either woman away from work, you’d never guess she is a firefighter strong enough to wrestle with the heavy hoses and wear the 60 pounds of turnout gear necessary to do her job.
We’re talking about Kelli Womac and Holly Smith, both rookie firefighters for Rural Metro. Womac works out of Station 41 on Campbell Station Road in Farragut. Smith is floating wherever she’s needed until she receives a permanent station assignment.
They have their similarities, for sure. But their differences are very different. Womac is 45 and a grandmother and was the oldest of the 21 people in the most recent fire academy class – male or female – which began this past March and ended with graduation on June 17. Smith is 23 and a Halls High School graduate while Womac is a Central High alum. Womac’s youngest daughter, Catlyn, a mother of two, is about to have Womac’s third grandchild. Catlyn and Smith are the same age.
There is a bond between these two professionals, no matter the age difference. They’ve already run into each other on emergency calls, albeit from different stations.
“Every day at academy we counted down each day before we started the day,” Smith said. “We said, ‘Give 110 percent, 32 days left; give 110 percent, 31 days left; give 100 percent, 30 days left; and don’t let 20 minutes defeat you.’ And we didn’t.”
Womac is the only female firefighter at Station 41. But that matters not. “They all treat us just like guys, like we’re one of the guys. That’s how it should be,” she said. “We’re firefighters – period.”
Both refer to Rural Metro as a “brotherhood” and “family.”
“Being at the station on my 24-hour shifts is a lot like being at home,” Womac said. “It’s my family. It’s not a job. We do everything as a team, eating and cooking, working, training – we’re all involved.”
When the word “brotherhood” came up, Smith had an interesting take on it. “You can’t say brotherhood without ‘her’ – her is right in the middle of the word brotherhood. We’re all just firefighters, and we’re not intimidated. Neither of us would have survived the academy if we had been intimidated,” she said.
So, how hard was fire academy?
“On day three we had full gear on and we’re doing the run-walk-crawl drill, and I literally passed out and it was like 90 degrees,” Womac said. “But I recovered and I knew I was not going to quit, that this is what I wanted to do with my life. And I survived.”
Smith passed out as well. “It was both mentally and physically exhausting, but that’s what it’s supposed to be. If you want it bad enough you can do it. I was not going to give up, no matter what. You have to prove that your heart’s in it, and I knew I had the heart to do it. I was going to graduate no matter what.”
Both said they spent weeks and days in the gym working out and preparing for the academy.
“We still got our tails kicked,” Womac said. “But we made it. It was physically, mentally and emotionally hard.
“The PT (physical training) each morning was brutal and horrible, and that’s not a joke. I thought I was in shape. There were days when I would drive home and still be sitting in the car when my husband got home. I could physically not get out of the car. My knees were bleeding and I had bruises everywhere. Total exhaustion.”
Smith agreed. “I had bruises everywhere. After five days of it each week I barely had enough time to recover on the weekends.”
Capt. Matthew Clift is the academy director. The academy runs for eight weeks, 10 hours a day, Monday through Friday.
From his perspective, how did Womac and Smith do? “They both came in with great attitudes,” he said. “They did well. At times their physical statures posed obstacles for them, but every time they found a way to get it done. And … not once did either one of them ask for help. They had to work harder and always did it on their own.”
During the academy, Clift pairs firefighters for timed drills to test their abilities. One is the Pittsburgh Drill where the pair has to go into a simulated fire scenario and bring out a downed firefighter. “I paired up Kelli and Holly for this drill, and they had better times for completing it than half of the all-guy teams,” Clift said. “That tells you a lot about them.”
Before joining Rural Metro, Womac was a registered nurse at the University of Tennessee Medical Center for nine years and at Park West Medical Center for seven years. She says she became frustrated and tired of the work created by the Affordable Care Act and said it hindered patient care. So she went to Roane State Community College and earned her EMT and EMT Advanced certifications and then went through paramedic school there. During that time she worked for Priority Ambulance in Loudon County for five years. Then she made the decision to become a firefighter.
While she was working at Park West she had a patient – Greg Womac. Both were single. Something clicked. Nurse and patient began dating and were married 10 years ago. He is a motorcycle officer for the Knoxville Police Department. Their blended family includes her two adult children and his three adult children and eight grandchildren. Home is in Ten Mile on Watts Bar Lake.
Smith’s husband, Quinn, is a corrections officer at the Knox County Sheriff’s Office Detention Center and hopes to be a deputy one day. They have been married for 11 months. Before Rural Metro, she earned an associate’s degree in health sciences at Pellissippi State Community College and worked as a nursing assistant at UT Medical Center. She also works a lot of part-time hours at All-Occasion Catering.
“I thought about nursing school, but I wanted something more hands on with more action,” Smith said. “I needed a long-term career and a purpose for my life, and I have found both here with Rural Metro.”
Womac also is working extra shifts at AMR/Rural Metro as an ambulance paramedic.
Clift said that Womac became “the mother of the class. She kept everyone straight and headed in the right direction.”
And this past Saturday, she and her husband were to host the class graduation party at their Watts Bar Lake home. “I think this is part of my mother’s job,” she said. “We’ll have fun and celebrate what we did and what we do.”
And they no doubt celebrated what Clift said – this was the first academy class since 2013 in which everyone graduated.
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.