‘… It’s been a great job’

Published 6:57 pm Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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One of the first part timers to join the department, Commander Terry Peterson retires nearly 30 years later


Austin Fire Department Commander Terry Peterson remembers the first live fire he faced as if it was yesterday.

It was a snowy night in the 1990s when a local downtown restaurant — King Garden — caught fire. Peterson was tasked with supporting firefighters on the hose.

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“I remember coming in and the officer at the time said, ‘go out and get us a spike pole and start pulling down the ceiling,’” Peterson said. “I just remember the flames going across the ceiling and I still remember that today. They were licking across the ceiling and going in there I was like, ‘god that’s cool.’”

That moment and several others will stay with Peterson after nearly 30 years with the Austin Fire Department, even into retirement. His last day with the department was on Saturday and sitting on the front of one of the Austin FD’s engines, he looked back on a career that saw him work up the ranks.

Peterson joined the Austin Fire Department as a part time firefighter in 1992, after 17 years with Austin’s McDonalds where he had been manager for nine years.

“At that point I was getting a little burned out,” Peterson said. “[The fire department] offered the part time position. I thought it would be a great second job and I ended up falling in love with it.”

Terry Peterson was among the first part timers that joined the Austin Fire Department in 1992. He retired Saturday after nearly 30 years on the department.
Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Peterson was one of the original 25 part timers to join the department, which had been all full time up until that point. In about five years, he moved to full time, which had been opened to internal part timers.

During his time, Peterson has held just about every position the fire department has, working his way up from firefighter to inspector, training coordinator and engineer.

“You know it’s something different every day,” Peterson said. “We talked to the guys about it. We’re repelling off a building and we get paid for this stuff. Or you’re 100 feet up in an aerial squirting water down on a fire. There’s a lot of cool things we get to do. I guess it’s an adrenaline rush going into fires.”

While Peterson has been a fixture with the department over the years, he’s also been a familiar face within the training of other firefighters.

Peterson became training coordinator in 2001 at the department where a lot of the training was done, however, he also joined Riverland Community College’s fire program as an instructor.

“I’m going to continue after retirement to teach for Riverland just to stay somewhat busy with them,” Peterson said. “They’ve treated me well, Wanda (Staska) has treated me well. It’s something to do.”

Peterson said he’s enjoyed being a firefighter during his nearly three decades as a firefighter. He remembers the big fires, including the downtown Main Street fire in 2009, which claimed several structures where the Spam Museum currently sits.

He also remembers the changes in technology and how fires are fought.

“When we came in in 1992, most of the full-time guys didn’t have bunker pants,” Peterson said. “They had turnout jackets and tall boots. We went through getting everybody in full bunker suits.”

Many of the gas-powered equipment firefighters first utilized in Peterson’s early days also changed to a lot of battery-operated equipment. Things like thermal imagers have shrunk to hand-held devices and air packs are much better.

In more recent years, the department has gone on more medicals as all firefighters are now EMT trained.

“We were running 325 calls in a year, now we’re running 2,200 calls a year,” Peterson said. “A lot of medicals.”

Peterson said he considers his career a success, even during some of the more difficult times. But the overarching experience has been a good one, filled with the many good firefighters he’s had the honor to work with over the years.

“We had some struggles in the fire department, but the last 10-12 years, it’s been a great job,” Peterson said. “I guess the oldest saying is if you work a job you love and you never work a day in your life. That’s how it’s been. The guys you work with, they become some of the best friends you have. Part time guys for full time it doesn’t matter. The last 25 years a third of my life I’ve spent down here.”