They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s the case, Fitzgerald “Fitz” Petersen has shared millions of words throughout the years.
Petersen works for Salt Lake County’s Unified Fire Authority as a captain. He does a lot more than put out fires though, and much of what he does goes beyond his job description. He runs an annual coat and blanket drive, and served as a K-9 handler for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Yet, most significantly, he’s a photographer.
Petersen, a 52-year-old from the small town of East Carbon, Utah. Ever since he was a kid, watching his dad rescue others from coal mines, he’s wanted to help people which is why, at 26 years old, he decided to become a firefighter.
Petersen got his first camera from his father when he was just 16 years old. He soon learned how to develop photos and started shooting for the school yearbook. Since then, it’s become one of his biggest passions and he’s studied the craft thoroughly to learn a ton of subtle nuances.
On his off days, he’ll keep a radio by his side. If he catches word about any fires in the area, he grabs his camera and runs off.
“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 told The Salt Lake Tribune. “They do extraordinary things every day, but they aren’t photographed every day.”
“That’s pretty special,” said United Fire Authority spokesman and close friend of Petersen’s, Eric Holmes. “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.”
Petersen is so dedicated to his craft, that he’s left social gatherings such as dinners and family events just to take pictures of firefighters in action. He only recalls once instance where he missed a fire and that was all the way back in 2005.
He was in class at the University of Utah at the time, working on getting his master’s degree in public administration. He didn’t leave because he wanted to focus on schoolwork yet the fire he missed turned out to be the biggest in his 26-year career. Missing it is still one of his biggest regrets.
“Very upsetting,” Petersen said. “It never happened again. I took my cameras to every class after that. It tortured me.”
Petersen doesn’t just take pictures of the fires themselves, though. He also documents honor guard ceremonies when his fellow first responders die. The photos he takes are given to their families 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.”
Despite the long and emotionally-taxing nature of these services, Petersen is dedicated to showing up. These photos allow UFA to reflect on the lives of their former coworkers months or even years later.
“Who in their right mind wants to go to funeral after funeral after funeral?” Holmes said, dumbfounded.
Petersen’s photography has made him somewhat of a local celebrity. Photos of his have been published in trade magazines. If you want to view some of his more recent photos for yourself, you can check out this online server. He’s also built up a social media following with photos of his getting as many as 120,000 hits in 24 hours.
So know this, at the end of the day, firefighters walked up to this monster and put a layer of foam on it. Not from a…
Yet it’s clear that Petersen isn’t doing any of this for fame. He does it because he’s a kind, thoughtful human being.
“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.”
Even after more than two and a half decades, Petersen still gets goosebumps when he hears a call come in. In fact, he says that’s what’s kept him young.
“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.”