At the monthly LDFPD Board meeting on April 15, 2014, the directors, chief officers and staff honored Board President Dr. Jerry “Doc” Peterson for more than 50 years of service to emergency services in Summit County. Doc, who is stepping down at the end of his term in May, was instrumental in establishing the first formal fire department and ambulance service in the area. When he arrived in 1962, as a dentist he was one of the few people with any medical training in the county.
One of the best things about having Jerry “Doc” Peterson on the Lake Dillon Fire Board of Directors is his incredible institutional knowledge – and his equally incredible and often hilarious accounts of Summit County’s then-rudimentary emergency services.
It was the early 1960s, and Peterson, a dentist by training who had been diverted in the U.S. Air Force Reserves to work as a firefighter, arrived in the tiny hamlet of Dillon – population 52 – before there was there there.
The longest-tenured LDFPD Board member, Peterson, 75, is observing his 50th year in the Summit County fire service this year, a tenure unrivaled in Colorado.
As one of the few Dillon residents ostensibly with any medical experience, Peterson and his partner, John Smith, often were called upon to treat injuries and emergency cases, and, along with the likes of locals Jim Lowe and Dick Schaeffer, they also formed the core of the community’s fire response.
The town had a fire whistle that would alert all able-bodied to scramble in a chaotic emergency response, and as often as not, injured people were loaded into the back of a pickup truck and hauled to Denver over often-harrowing Loveland Pass before Interstate 70 and the Eisenhower Tunnel were built. At times during blinding snowstorms, Lowe would walk the roadway with a flashlight to show Peterson where to go to stay on the roadway.
“Our first ambulance was a VW microbus,” Peterson recalled. “It didn’t go up Loveland Pass very good, but it went downhill pretty good.”
Subsequently, the town acquired an old Cadillac from Kansas that was a combination hearse and ambulance.
“Then we graduated to Smoky Joe, a Pontiac. It was true to its name. It was smoky. It would take three quarts of oil to go down to Denver. The valve lifters made so much noise everyone would move out of your way on Colfax,” Peterson said with a chuckle.
The firefighting options weren’t much better. Now an antique, the Sterling engine often wouldn’t start without being rolled down the hill on Lake Dillon Drive, and its brakes offered more of a suggestion than a demand. “It didn’t squirt much water, anyway, so it wouldn’t make a whole lot of a difference. On a good day, we might get a 30-foot stream out of it.”
The town later acquired a used pumper, and Peterson and the crew were taught by an officer from its former department how to use it.
“The problem was we went about three months before we had any fire calls. We had a grass fire, and everyone was so excited when it started going. But nobody could remember how to put the pump gear in gear, so we used the shovels and rakes to put out that fire.”
He’s been putting out fires ever since, having “caught the bug.”
Peterson, who first took a seat with the Dillon Fire District Board in 1982, helped navigate the politics of subsequent mergers with Dillon Valley, then Frisco, Silverthorne and the Snake River districts. “It’s been quite an experience. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.”