As a boy, Fitzgerald “Fitz” Petersen didn’t know what he wanted to do when he grew up. He just knew it would involve helping others.
Living in the small Utah coal town of East Carbon, he admired his father’s work rescuing miners in deadly situations.
It wasn’t until he saw a classified ad in The Salt Lake Tribune 26 years ago that Petersen, 52, decided to become a firefighter. It fit his mentality.
Across Petersen’s right forearm, a mission statement of sorts is tattooed: “Life is duty.” They are words he lives by.
When he’s not on duty as a captain for Salt Lake County’s Unified Fire Authority, he’s usually shooting photos of emergencies. Petersen also runs an annual winter coat and blanket drive and previously was a K-9 handler for the Federal Emergency Management Agency until his dog, Pilot, went into retirement.
“That’s pretty special,” said UFA spokesman Eric Holmes, who has been friends with Petersen for more than 20 years. “We all have things special about us, but, I tell you, he’s given so much of himself to so many people over the years.”
For the past 17 years, Petersen has been the official photographer for UFA. During his normal work schedule, he is the captain for Station 110 in Cottonwood Heights. But on his off days, he doesn’t stray from his radio. He ignores medical calls, but when a major incident hits — such as the Jan. 19 fuel tanker fire on Interstate 15 — Petersen grabs his camera and goes.
“I want to do the same thing that every photographer wants to do, and that’s to show people doing extraordinary things in their best light,” Petersen said. “They do extraordinary things every day, but they aren’t photographed every day.”
Petersen got his first camera from his dad, an amateur photographer, when he was 16. He learned how to develop photos and soon began shooting for the school yearbook. Through the years, he read photography books to hone his craft, and experimented with light and composition.
“As a photographer, you always want to see cool stuff in your lens,” Holmes said, “but it’s a little bigger than that for Fitz.”
Petersen views himself as the photographer of record for area emergency responders. In addition to shooting active fires, he documents honor guard ceremonies when fellow first responders die and gives the families photos free of charge.
“Our department is literally giving these as a gift,” Petersen said. “It’s the last thing the fire department gives them. Most of the time we never hear from them again.”
Lt. Brian Lohrke of Unified Police Department said that during the funerals, officers are so wrapped up in what is going on that they don’t get a chance to step back and reflect on the gravity of the situation. Petersen’s photos allow them to do that months or years later.
Holmes said that, given the drawn-out, emotional and ceremonial nature of the services, Petersen’s dedication to documenting them is remarkable.
“Who in their right mind wants to go to funeral after funeral after funeral?” Holmes said.
While Petersen is volunteering his time to document the somber events, he said he gets fulfillment in being able to give families the photos.
Over the decades, photography has grown into an obsession for Petersen. He has left dinners, family events, even a high school reunion to shoot firefighters on-scene. The only time he can recall passing on a fire was when he was in class at the University of Utah while getting his master’s degree in public administration in 2005.
He had decided to put schoolwork first, he said. But he regretted the decision when the blaze ended up being one of the largest during his 26-year career, sweeping through and destroying Wasatch Junior High School in Holladay.
“Very upsetting,” Petersen said. “It never happened again. I took my cameras to every class after that. It tortured me.”
Petersen is known throughout the Salt Lake Valley for his photography. He hosts recent photo galleries on an online server and has been published in trade magazines. He’s also built a following on Facebook and Instagram. A couple of years ago, his photos of an apartment fire in Herriman got 120,000 hits in 24 hours, he said.
But above the local fame for his photos, those who work with Petersen know him for his jovial personality. He cracks jokes with co-workers as he strolls through the fire station, putting everyone at ease. His sense of humor, along with his sincerity, is a draw for people, Holmes said.
“He embodies everything maybe an ideal human could or should be,” Holmes said. “And I think that’s kind of intoxicating for a lot of people.”
Petersen said blending his hobby and career has helped keep his passion for photography burning and his spirit for firefighting youthful. When he’s shooting a fire, he sees firefighting from a different angle. It’s inspiring. He still gets a jolt of excitement every time a call comes in.
“It’s normal when you’re in your first year,” he said. “[For most], it varies when you get to your 26th year. But when I see this guy’s doing heroic things on a truck fire, I want to go on a truck fire.”
Sometimes, though, he worries. While shooting his comrades last month as they sprayed flame-retardant foam on the burning fuel tanker on I-15, the thought that the tanks might explode crept into his mind.
Another memorable fire occurred a few years back when a propane truck rolled over in Parleys Canyon. A huge plume of fire was released as the truck caught fire, but the propane hadn’t ignited. Petersen took photos as firefighters moved in to save the driver.
“They risked their lives to get in there and get this guy out,” Petersen said. “It could have killed them all.”
Holmes said Petersen’s compassion — the deep concern for the safety of others over that of his own — sets him apart. He can tell when Petersen worries about his crew being in danger because he gets “puppy dog eyes.”
Though firefighters try to keep their composure, Petersen knows them and can tell when they are scared by the slight rise in their voices.
“Until they say ‘all clear,’ I worry,” Petersen said. “I worry about the guys going in the house. I worry about the guys going down on ropes on rescues.”