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VOL. 43 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 23, 2019

Pigeon Forge's protector

Chief Watson has passion to fight fires, save lives

By Nancy Henderson

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Hanging out at the station in the 1970s with his father, Clancy, one of the first career firefighters at the Gatlinburg Fire Department, young Tony Watson got a unique insider’s view of the job.

He heard all about the home rescues and the babies his dad delivered back when due dates weren’t so precise and pregnant moms sometimes went into labor while vacationing in the Smokies. He occasionally watched his dad chase down streakers sprinting naked past the old fire hall, then haul them off to jail in the back of the building.

“The police officers used to pick me up and take me to the fire station to wait for my mother to get off from work,” recalls Watson, 51, now fire chief at Pigeon Forge. “I saw what [my dad] did, and it really got in my blood. He was very aggressive, but always good at taking care of people that needed to be taken care of either way, whether it was good or bad. I saw where he was able to make a difference in people’s lives. He was doing the right thing by the community. He helped people in their worst times ever, and that just really resonated with me.”

Extroverted, positive and, like his father, a proudly aggressive defender of his territory, Watson has led Pigeon Forge to earn national recognition as a Firewise USA community as well as a pilot city for the Ready, Set, Go! program (a partnership with the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the USDA Forest Service), and has become a sought-after speaker on fire safety since he took over as the city’s first paid fire chief in 2007.

Chief Matt Henderson, Watson’s counterpart in neighboring Sevierville, has known him for 25 years. “Chief Watson is very passionate about his fire service profession,” Henderson says. “When I say he is passionate, I mean if he gets committed to a cause, he is relentless.”

Despite his growing desire to follow in his dad’s firefighting footsteps after high school, Watson knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. It would be several years before a paid position opened at the Gatlinburg Fire Department ­– other applicants were waiting in line ahead of him – so at 18 he began volunteering there and in 1988 went to work at the Sevier County Ambulance Service.

Tony Watson, Pigeon Forge fire chief, is an adjunct professor at Walters State and the Natonal Fire Academy teaching classes for emergency medical responders.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash/The Ledger

“Because I used to work on the ambulance that worked in Pigeon Forge, I got to see this fire department and I got to see this community, and I knew that I had more opportunities down here,” Watson says. “I just loved this community and I wanted to be a part of that.” He and his new bride, Candace, soon moved to Pigeon Forge, where he volunteered with the city’s fire department while still earning a living as a paramedic.

He also began riding shifts and working special events with local law enforcement and later became a reserve police officer, a role he still takes seriously in spite of his other obligations. “If a police officer makes a stop out here on the side of the road, and they don’t have anybody with them,” he says, “I may pull up behind them and make sure they’re okay. Officer safety is very important, and I treasure my relationship that we have here in the City of Pigeon Forge with our police department.

“We’re really partners in public safety.”

It didn’t take long for Watson to realize he needed a formal education to nab the promotions he wanted. So he earned an associate degree in fire science from Walters State Community College, then a B.S. in organizational management and a graduate degree in organizational training, both from Tusculum College.

In the early ‘90s, he says, “It came to me just like a ton of bricks, ‘Hey, I like helping people.’ I knew as a paramedic that I see one patient at a time. It struck me that I can do more if I teach more. … If I teach you how to go save someone’s life, then I have multiplied my lifesaving ability.”

He taught his first 40-hour class for emergency medical responders through the Pigeon Forge Fire Department, then became an adjunct instructor at Walters State and the National Fire Academy. “I was a tough instructor, but a loving instructor,” he says. “I would give the time to whatever those students needed.”

In 2005, Watson became the training officer at the Sevier County EMS, where he oversaw continuing education for the paramedics and EMTs. He recently graduated from the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program.

Patriot Park in Pigeon Forge honors those who fought the 2016 wild fires in the area.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash/The Ledger

Each step of the way, he remembered his dad’s advice. “He had to drop out of school to help support his family,” Watson explains. “He had about an eighth-grade education, but he had such street sense. This is what he told me, and it really meant a lot to me: ‘Anybody can put wet stuff on the red stuff, but when something goes wrong inside that building and you get trapped or something, it’s the people with the training that get you out.’”

After nearly 50 years as a volunteer-only fire department, in 2003 the Gatlinburg facility hired its first employee, a fire inspector. Watson knew he wasn’t qualified but applied anyway, mostly to express his interest in working there. But when the department hired three firefighters, he didn’t throw his hat in the ring.

“I was tied with golden handcuffs,” he says. “I was making good money at the ambulance service, and I just could not afford to take that pay cut right then. I’d just built a house.”

His big break came in 2007, when he heard that Pigeon Forge was creating a paid fire chief position. “Nobody really thought I was ever going to get that job,” Watson says. “But in the back of my mind, I knew I’d worked hard to prepare myself on the education side to be ready, teaching all these EMS classes, setting up the countywide AED (Automated External Defibrillator) program, a lot of things that got me into all these community fire departments.”

Sixty-four job seekers applied, and Watson landed the position. Twelve years later, the Pigeon Forge Fire Department now relies on 42 fulltime employees and about 10 volunteers.

The job has been a great fit, Watson says. “I love this community, and I think that’s key because you work a little harder, you’re going to do a little bit more than when you don’t. I know the key players in the community. I think that the heart and passion that I have for my job goes down through my rank-and-file [staff] because I get very few ­– knock on wood – complaints when I hear the general public or business owners talk about what my firefighters do.

Fire Chief Tony Watson shows off an old photograph of his father, Clancy, who was also a firefighter.   

-- Photos By Adam Taylor Gash/The Ledger

“I think we changed the bar of what the expectation is of a fire service.”

Those expectations have been especially high since the devastating wildfires of November 28, 2016. As the fires raged in the mountains that morning, Watson took command of a joint task force with federal, state and local resources in the Mynatt Park area, where they expected the blaze to enter Gatlinburg.

Even though the destruction there drew more news coverage, Pigeon Forge did not go unscathed. Five separate ignition sources started fires in the city, prompting 200 calls an hour. Pigeon Forge lost 19 homes, Sevier County, another 270.

Watson now travels the Southeast, leading disaster preparation training for various organizations. “Most everybody believes, ‘Well, it’s never going to happen here.’ I’m trying to give back because to be a good leader, you’ve got to give back to your craft and be able to help people.”

Ready, Set, Go!, a national emergency preparedness program that unites local residents, businesses, government leaders, land managers and others, was already in the works when he became chief, Watson says. One year after the wildfires, the National Fire Protection Association deemed Pigeon Forge a Firewise USA site for its cooperative effort to “adapt to living with wildfire” and prevent future ones.

“In the words of one of our first volunteer firemen in the United States, Benjamin Franklin said, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’” Watson points out. “The wildfires gave us a captive audience. We had already done Ready, Set, Go! So we went and talked to all these residents about being situationally prepared, having their home battle-ready and fire-resistant.

“It’s not that it will never occur again. This will repeat itself in the future, maybe not as severe, maybe not with all those same factors coming together. But this kind of fire had been on my radar before.”

In July, Watson became president of the Tennessee Fire Chiefs Association, a 475-member group representing departments of all sizes. “I’m mostly humble about it,” he says. “But I’m very proud of the fact that my peers had enough faith in me to elect me to be their president.”

In his spare time, Watson mentors members of the local high school football team, some of whom end up working at the fire department, and volunteers as team paramedic.

“I love interacting with them on the sidelines, down there on Friday nights,” says Watson, who also serves as vice president of the Pigeon Forge Touchdown Club, which raises funds to support the team. He considers himself a family man and loves spending time with his wife, grown children and two small grandchildren, whom he calls his “heartbeat.”

Away from home, he is dedicated to his other “family” at the fire hall. “I really enjoy making connections with people and learning from folks,” he says. “I love to watch my folks grow intellectually, professionally. … I’m demanding, but I’m also there to love on you and take care of you in your time of need, when your family’s sick. I’m going to pray with them. I try to be a good leader.”

As for his own aspirations, he says, “I take opportunities to succeed. I like change. I like to sometimes push the envelope.” But he quickly adds, “The good Lord is just sort of using me. Ambition scares me. I hate arrogance. I’m not going to ask you to do anything I won’t do.”

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