He once crawled into a burning, smoke-filled home and pulled a woman and her two little girls out of a back bedroom. He helped rescue a man trapped on a roof cleaning out his gutters. The man was a paraplegic and while on the roof his artificial limbs came off.
It’s Calloway’s Silver Anniversary year with the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD). In January 2021 he was promoted to assistant chief of training – into the position of training all 327 KFD members. Big job.
“After 25 years of working as a firefighter, this new job has pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he says. “Before I was just responsible for my own training. Now I’m responsible for training every person in our department.”
Being a firefighter was not on his mind after high school. Calloway, 52 and a Powell resident, graduated from Holston High in 1987, headed for the University of Tennessee and graduated in 1992 with a degree in economics and a minor in political science.
“I was planning to take that degree and set the world on fire in the business world. I saw myself working on plant relocations, developing industrial sites and doing some industrial forecasting, but that didn’t exactly work out,” he said. “I worked for a finance company for two or three years after I left UT and found out I didn’t enjoy boring work or working inside in an office.”
On three separate times in 1995 and early 1996 he checked the classified ads. All three times the first ad he saw was from the Knoxville Fire Department. “After I saw the ad for the third time, I thought the Lord was trying to tell me something, maybe drawing me to the fire department,” he said. “And hey, I was like most little boys – I loved fire trucks.”
The pay was not good. “I told my wife (Tammy) we wouldn’t get rich. She knew I was miserable and she said being happy is a lot more important. So I applied and took the test and passed it the first time, which is hard to do. I got hired and the cards fell into place and I knew I was doing the right thing.”
This veteran knows the job through and through and that is why KFD Chief Stan Sharp has him in charge of all training now. He was promoted to captain in 2005 and worked at Station 12 in West Knoxville before this new gig came along.
In the spring of 1997, Calloway’s engine was first on the scene at a house fire on Tillman Road. His chief told him to go in and see if anyone was inside. He went in on hands and knees amidst the flames and zero visibility of smoke and flying ash.
“I finally found a woman and her children in a back bedroom. I got the mother first and went back for the two kids and got them out one by one,” he said. “You don’t ever forget things like this. The two little girls were in elementary school. I rode in the ambulance to Children’s (East Tennessee Children’s Hospital) with one of the girls.” The mother and her daughters all died from smoke inhalation. That heroism led to him being honored as KFD’s Firefighter of the Year.
A few years later he was at Station 14 and a call came in about a man being stuck on his roof. “We rolled up and he was up there sitting close to the ladder he used and both of his prosthetics fell off when he tried to get back on the ladder,” Calloway remembered like it was yesterday.
“We got back on the ground and wondered how we’d get him down. We’d trained for lots of things but not for anything like this.”
With Calloway was now retired Capt. David Linkous. “We decided to put two ladders side by side about two feet apart. We put a harness around him and we both put our inside arms around him and he put his arms around our necks,” Calloway explained.
“And we went down the ladders, rung by rung together and got him safely down. It wasn’t an easy rescue; I’ll tell you that.”
Now, it’s all about training and retraining every KFD firefighter in weekly classes in skills areas like vehicle extractions, propane gas classes, forcible entry and ventilation, and personal harness training, among many others. Today’s equipment is all digital, while many veterans came along using analog.
Calloway is a role model for dedication, professionalism and commitment.
“There’s not a day in 25 years I’ve not wanted to go to work.
“Everybody in the fire department could be doing something else. We all love what we do. We’re a family. We live together, we love each other and we always watch out for each other.”
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. He writes this Monday column – Our Town Heroes – for KnoxTNToday.com. Suggest future stories at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 865-659-3562.