A high school kid with long hair, a rebellious college art student, a fun-loving Marine, an adrenaline-stoked firefighter, a caring paramedic. That’s the spectrum of Capt. Doug Gwaltney.
A conversation with this man is, to say the least, one interesting experience. He’s been a captain with the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD) for the past five years, and for the past 11 years he’s been working at West Hills Station 20 near West Town Mall.
Many may not know that he was a U.S. Marine. Today he wears the same Marine haircut he had in boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. – cut short and high. It was not always so.
This 46-year-old professional was born and reared in Oak Ridge, and when he was at Oak Ridge High School, well, read his words: “Man, I had real long hair back then, even wore it in a ponytail a lot and was really into the punk scene and really into art,” he says. “No sports.”
He was deep into charcoal drawings, his favorite medium, in high school and college. After high school graduation in 1990, he headed for East Tennessee State University in Johnson City to study art. He stayed for about a year and then transferred to the University of Tennessee to resume his art studies. After a year at UT he became disillusioned with the professors and how and what they taught about art. He says: “It busted my art bubble. I gave it up. Totally.”
Out of school. No job. A friend who worked at Rural/Metro talked him into applying. This was 1992. He began as a reserve firefighter and went to Rural/Metro’s Fire Academy and then EMS school at Roane State Community College. He was part-time for a while and was promoted to full-time work in 1998.
He graduated paramedic school at Roane State in 1999 and married wife Darlene that same year. In November 2000 he switched to KFD.
The Marine Reserves came in 1997, starting with boot camp. He was a combat engineer. “We blew things up, like tanks,” he says with a smile. “It was fun.” He spent six years in the Marines at the U.S. Naval & Marine Center on Alcoa Highway and was discharged in 2005, maintaining his Rural/Metro and KFD jobs throughout.
Gwaltney was a busy man. Still is.
These days he’s on “light duty” at the KFD Training Center following a recent knee surgery. He should be back at Station 20 in April, he says. His light duty is training young firefighters how to tie various knots used in hoisting equipment and rescue situations. He has also been doing damage assessments from the recent downpours and flooding.
“This career has been a great fit for me from day one,” he explains. “I’ve always enjoyed the high adrenaline rush that comes with the job, showing up and helping people. It’s very rewarding. I don’t know what else I would do. We have great camaraderie. No day is routine. I’m not in an office looking at a computer all day. I’m not building the same thing every day. Every call we get is similar but different. And we get to work as a team.”
Gwaltney thinks back to the day of answering a call to the home of an elderly man, a man who lived alone. He had fallen and could not get up off the floor. “That was an easy call for us, but this gentleman lived alone and didn’t see many people, so we hung around and just talked with him for a while. We enjoyed it, and he did, too.”
By far, the majority of their calls – easily 90 percent – are for medical emergencies, he says. “We get a lot of heart attacks and people with breathing issues, alarms going off, falls on steps, gas leaks, locked cars, wrecks, and fires are last,” he says.
His “toughest call” in all of these years was responding to a 911 call about an infant. “It was a SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), and the baby had been dead a while when we arrived. Prettiest little baby, and there was nothing we could do,” he says. “Not even 6 months old. That was a hard one on me.”
There is one place where he does not like to work – ever. “I hate working wrecks on the interstates,” he says. Gwaltney recalls a two-car accident on I-40 East just before the West Hills exit. “One car was against the median wall and the other one ended up across the interstate. I was in the median and was standing outside the car. And all of a sudden I heard my captain screaming at me. There was a car flying straight at me. He barely missed me, and I mean barely. I felt the air as he went by. He sideswiped the car I was leaning against and kept going. That was too close for sure.”
In addition to his full-time job, he also is:
- A member of KFD’s Technical Rescue Team
- Attached to the Knoxville Police Department’s Search and Rescue Team for medical support (searches for missing adults and children)
- A volunteer for the Northeast Union County Volunteer Fire Department
He has no trouble getting away from the pressure of the 24-hour shifts he works. He and Darlene and their two kids live on five acres in Union County. He has a 50-minute commute from home to Station 20. “When I’m headed home and driving out through Union County I top the hill, and when I see the trees and the mountains, all the cares come off me,” he says. “It’s very peaceful.”
Gwaltney is also into woodworking. Without plans or drawings, he’s made a bookshelf, a washing-machine stand, a table for their TV and other small items. “My wife’s into raising chickens now, and I had to build her a chicken coop.”
And now he’s ready to get back to work at Station 20 and off the light duty. “I don’t like to sit still,” he says. “Not at 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.com and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency services professional we should feature, email Tom King.)