From the bingo games of the early 1970s to the Black Friday fire of 1985, Golden Gate Fire Chief Don Peterson has seen a lot of changes during his 25-year tenure with the fire and rescue district.
Last month, the board honored him with a plaque commemorating the longest serving chief in the district's 32-year history.
Formed as a volunteer fire department in 1971, Golden Gate established a small paid force through a taxing district with Collier County in 1974. In 1983, seeking independence from the county, voters created the Golden Gate Fire & Rescue District that remains in place today.
Peterson signed on as a volunteer in 1980 and was hired on as a paid firefighter in 1981. He remembers the community's struggle to build its first fire station, a metal frame building at Coronado and Golden Gate Parkway.
"We ran bingo once a week and we had the bay air conditioned for the bingo players," he recalls of how the building was financed.
With the resignation of Chief Norman Hatcher in 1990, Peterson was promoted to chief. Since that time, the veteran chief has seen many changes in the district.
"There were 12,000 people in the community of Golden Gate and one station to serve everyone," Peterson says of the early years of the district. "There were two trucks, one fire engine and one military 6x6, and one person on a shift. So the question was did you take the brush truck or did you take the engine?" Today, Peterson leads a force of 53-plus firefighters, a command staff of four and a fleet of 12 fire vehicles to respond to emergencies in the District. That growth comes at a cost, a cost that Peterson says needs to be addressed with a millage cap increase.
"We were at one mil and we still are today," he says. "We've gone from two or three calls a shift, to 20 calls a shift, and our population today is 80,000 and growing." That growth represents a shift from an early community of retirees to today's rapidly expanding population of single and multi-family housing.
"We definitely have more ages than we used to serve," he says. "When we got a call in the early '80s, it was more heart attack related. It was more like a retirement community. The calls for service were limited because people used to do things for themselves. They also knew where they were, too. People are not as familiar with the area today." One of his proudest and most daunting moments was stopping a major brush fire that took the life of a fellow firefighter with the Division of Forestry in 1985.
"It was one continuous fire; we lost Marco Miranda just down the street," he recalled, referring to 13th Street, where Station 71 stands today. "They called it Black Friday as there were fires from the Georgia border down to the Keys. It went for several months, but our streak went for several days." Peterson's crew of five firefighters was headed down 20th off Woodland Estates, when the forestry plane guiding them from above realized it was not communicating with Peterson, but a totally separate crew. As a result, Peterson and his team were trapped.
"We got under the truck and kept the water going. We went so deep into the fire, we had to hunker down," he recalls, adding that wild fires are unpredictable and create their own momentum and weather. He says they were all lucky to get out alive as the fire rolled over the truck.
Peterson's interest in the fire service stems from family members such as his own uncle who was also in the industry.
"My uncle was a volunteer in Wisconsin. When my folks moved down in the mid-70's, we visited at Christmas and Thanksgiving. We had an offer we couldn't refuse," he says of moving his family to Golden Gate. "We decided we wanted to be here so we sold our house up North in the middle of winter." Juggling career and family has been challenging, and Peterson's grown children sometimes remind him of the time he spent away from his family while serving the public. His daughter Julie is now a teacher in Lakeland and son Joey works in the copier industry in Charlotte, NC. Mary, his wife of 32 years, attends every board meeting and has supported her husband through endless hours of emergency and community service.
For Peterson the sacrifice goes with the job.
"We are here to protect lives and property and we do what we have to do. We give the community our all," he says, wrapping up the Citizen's interview after the May fire board meeting, topping off a 13-hour day. "We do whatever it takes to really help the people. I can't say thank you enough to the community."