Chattanooga native Lisa Hendy has worked at half a dozen national parks in her career, but visitors don't necessarily meet her unless something goes wrong — really wrong.
Hendy, who was named chief ranger of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in April 2019, is among the professionals at the other end of the line for 911 calls within the National Park Service.
On Monday, Oct. 12, she will open the National Park Partners' Moccasin Bend Fall Lecture Series with a virtual program titled "When the Walk in the Park Goes Wrong: Emergency Response in Our National Parks."
Tricia Mims, executive director of National Park Partners — which represents Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and the national archaeological district at Moccasin Bend — said series founder and underwriter Greg Vital suggested Hendy as a speaker when planners began discussing this year's programming several months ago.
"Between the Chattanooga connection and her stellar park service career, Lisa was someone he felt would well represent the lecture series' ideals of conservation, community engagement and deep love and respect for our national parks," Mims said.
As chief ranger, Hendy is responsible for the Resource and Visitor Protection Division, overseeing rangers involved in law enforcement, fire management, emergency medical services, search-and-rescue operations and backcountry operations, among other duties.
"It can be anything from a serious car accident to a theft or burglary, an assault in a campground or someone having a seizure in a parking lot," she said.
The division has about 60 employees, the park about 300. Her office is in park headquarters near the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, entrance.
The Times Free Press spoke with Hendy about her time in Chattanooga, her 26-year career in the parks system and her latest assignment leading the most visited national park in the United States. Here are some takeaways from the conversation.
Chattanooga: She's a 1990 graduate of Girls Preparatory School who played basketball and ran track. She said she gets back "fairly often" to visit friends from school and a few family members who are still in the area.
Auburn University: She graduated in 1994 with a degree in park and recreation management, after starting in criminal justice. She changed her major after realizing she didn't want to be "stuck in a city" and a professor steered her toward land management agencies. She also earned a master's degree in biomechanics and exercise physiology from Utah State.
Career moves: Hendy has worked as a backcountry ranger in the Grand Canyon National Park; as manager of the Search and Rescue Program and Emergency Medical Services, including helicopter rescues, in Yosemite National Park; and as chief ranger at Big Bend National Park in Texas. She also had early internships and seasonal positions with Yosemite, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Arches and Canyonlands national parks. While at Grand Canyon, she was selected to receive the 2011 Harry Young National Park Ranger Award for excellence, in effect naming her the best ranger in the nation.
She has moved through the ranks as she found new duties she wanted to explore. In 10 seasons at Rocky Mountain, for instance, she found she "really enjoyed the search-and-rescue component" of the job. After getting her paramedics license, she transferred to Grand Canyon, which has its own ambulances. "I was a flight medic there," she said. She left for Yosemite to manage a helicopter rescue team. "A lot of the transfers were precipitated by an area of interest," she said.
She was drawn to Great Smoky Mountains "for the quality of the management team and the reputation of the job here," she said. Having family within a couple hours' drive is a bonus.
A good day: Hendy said her work as chief ranger involves "a lot of administrative duties and meetings" that keep her in the office. "A good day is any day I can spend out in the field with my guys," she said. "It's the days I get to be a ranger again. The days I get to go on patrol or the days we've got some sort of special operation or I get to respond as a paramedic and not just a manager."
Upcoming program: Outreach presentations like the lecture series are a big part of the job, and Hendy said she generally lets her audience choose a direction.
"I don't script it too heavily" she said. "Every group has something they want to hear about. A lot of people don't know we manage aircraft or that the average park ranger is trained in structure fire, wildfire, EMS. Most people's vision of park rangers are the folks providing information and doing the public interface.
"I explain what we do, and that alone is such an educational experience," she said. "I think they think they know and are really shocked to hear everything we do. We work more behind the scenes, and then when we're needed, we're really needed."
To sign up for Hendy's program, which starts at noon, go to bit.ly/hendytalk.