The fire business set its hook in Wayne Waggoner 46 years ago. He embraced it. Swallowed that hook. He’s still hooked. And it is safe to say that he has loved, even cherished, every minute, every hour and every day of it.
Waggoner is a very spry 69 now, and after only two months in retirement, he’s back at Rural Metro Fire in Knox County for his second tour. For three years, 1998 to 2001, he was its fire chief. In August 2018, current Rural Metro Chief Jerry Harnish called and asked Waggoner if he could meet him for lunch.
“We just chatted and Jerry asked me if I would be interested in helping with the fire inspections in Farragut and work with Fire Marshal Dan Johnson,” he recalled. ”I said yes – that was about it.” Then, in June 2022, Harnish asked Waggoner if he would take over the job as RM’s first-ever facilities manager. Without hesitation he said yes. And once again he’s part of RM’s senior staff.
It is a big job, and to quote Rural Metro Public Information Officer Capt. Jeff Bagwell, “It’s supposed to be a part-time job he’s paid to do but Wayne’s working full-time hours.” Translation: Rural Metro has a bargain.
As the facilities manager, Waggoner is responsible for all 17 of the agency’s fire stations, that are home 24/7 to a rotation of their 209 firefighters, paramedics and EMT rescue first responders. He maintains the fire alarm systems in every station and has six vendors under contract to do the work firefighters used to do – like painting the stations inside and out.
“We want our firefighters to focus on their jobs and their training and let us take care of the physical and technology needs at every station,” Waggoner says. He inspects for any repairs that need to be made, new construction and any upgrades. He checks for plumbing needs, any electrical issues, replacing things like windows or doors. “It’s a lot of work.”
“I didn’t go back for money,” Waggoner said. “I said yes to Chief Harnish because of my love for the department. They fill a huge niche in our community and they run this department the way you are supposed to run a fire department. I’ve worked with fire departments all over the southeast and this is the best of ’em all. They’re a good bunch to work with and I’m back with my friends now.” And he adds, “Rural Metro is the fourth largest fire department in Tennessee, and Knox County and our people are well served.”
In 2001, Waggoner made a career move. He left RM and began a 17-year career with the National Fire Sprinkler Association based in Patterson, New York. He was its regional manager over operations in Tennessee, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. His love for that job dates to his days as Knox County’s first fire marshal under then County Executive Dwight Kessel. Waggoner has always advocated that all buildings, commercial and residential, should be outfitted with sprinkler systems. “They do that in Scottsdale, Arizona, (Rural Metro’s headquarters) and they have the lowest fire rates and death rates from fire in the country,” he said.
During his years in the sprinkler business, he and his late wife, Vicki, lived on a houseboat in Andersonville for 13 years – and he fished only twice. “Never got into fishing,” he says. “It was just wonderful relaxing there when I was home. I traveled a lot back then.” Vicki passed away with cancer 11 years ago, and today Wayne lives in Powell.
He’s proud of a major accomplishment that was part of his work with the National Sprinkler Association that has made a difference in the Volunteer State. It took two deadly fires to open everyone’s eyes.
- On Sept. 25, 2003, a fire killed 16 people at the NHC Healthcare Center in Nashville. The facility met all codes but had no automatic sprinkler system.
- In January 2004, a fire in a Blount County retirement home killed three residents and injured at least 12 others at the Home Away from Home Inc. The privately owned facility had 15 residents living in a converted one-floor house and offered assisted and unassisted living. The home did not have emergency sprinklers.
In 2005, Waggoner spent 15 weeks in Nashville working on a bill to get all nursing homes retrofitted with modern sprinkler systems. “I met with Gov. (Phil) Bredesen and he said it would cost $12 million to get this done, that the state had 32 facilities and he didn’t think it could be accomplished in two years as the bill specified,” he explained.
“I said if you find the money, I can find the companies to get it done.”
Bredesen’s office called and asked for second meeting that lasted 15 minutes, Waggoner said. “I have the $12 million,” the governor said. “And I told him I found the companies to do the work. And we did it.”
His career work has led to awards … three major ones. The Fire Protector Contractors Magazine named him its Man of the Year in 2019. In 1991 he was honored with the Life Saver National Award by the Eveready Battery Co. He says his most prestigious award came in 2000 from the Southeastern Fire Chiefs Association – the H.D. Crosenine Award.
When’s not working, his free time fun is playing his drums, which he did professionally long years ago. “I still play at home and a little bit. I love music and going to concerts,” he says.
And he’ll be traveling again soon … for fun. He’ll be headed back to Myrtle Beach to spend time with his new 8-week-old grandson, Weston Scott Waggoner Jr., whose parents are Weston and Nicole.
“This is the kind of travel I’ll love,” he said.
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked for newspapers in Tennessee and Georgia.