For most patients in the dentist chair, the sounds of the outside world have no meaning, fading away until the appointment is over.
But for those who came to Jerry Peterson in the 1960s and ’70s, a fire alarm or ambulance siren had significant meaning — usually that they might be sitting there for a while.
In those days, Summit County didn’t have the highly equipped, highly trained firefighting squads it has now; instead, it had a small, dedicated force of volunteers who raced to disasters in any vehicles or contraptions handy. Peterson was one of those volunteers, and as one of the few medically trained professionals in the county, he had to put dental patients on hold during emergencies.
“We’d give them some magazines and they’d sit in the chair for four hours and we’d come back and get to work,” Peterson recalled. It wasn’t like the patients could just walk down the street to the next dental office, either. Peterson had the only one in the entire county.
A PARTICULAR SET OF SKILLS
When Peterson arrived in Summit County in 1962, the town of Dillon had just been moved to make way for the new dam.
“There wasn’t much there, I’ll tell ya,” said Peterson with a laugh. “A big hole in the ground.”
Nevertheless, he bought a lot and relocated the next spring with his wife, Sue.
“I escaped from Minnesota,” he joked.
Except for one year in Frisco, the couple has lived in the same house in Dillon that they built when they arrived.
“Coming right out of dental school and coming to a place where there hadn’t been a dentist since the silver crash days … it was kind of like walking into a third world country of sorts,” Peterson said. “Some people took good care of their teeth and a lot of people just considered teeth throwaways.”
The newly moved town of Dillon was also short on medical office space, so Peterson set up shop in the hardware store “between the pipe wrenches and the water heaters.”
Though the job was often slow, Peterson had plenty else to do, between his hobbies — hiking, skiing and boating — and his volunteer firefighting.
“When I was in dental school, this was during the height of the Cold War,” he explained. “I learned a lot there. It was like a real souped-up EMT course and we were supposed to be barefoot docs, could do surgery and set legs, all this sort of stuff.”
These medical skills came in handy in Summit County, where only a handful of other people had them.
At that point, Peterson already had an affinity for firefighting, from his days in the U.S. Air Force Reserves in Minnesota. When color blindness kept him from being a fighter pilot, he ended up in the airport fire department. He enjoyed the work and the crew, and firefighting just got into his blood.
IMPROVISATION AND INGENUITY
Nowadays, Summit County’s firefighters can roar up the nearby hills in well-built, fully equipped fire engines (though it does take its toll). But in Peterson’s early years, the options were much slimmer. Cars and hand-me-down engines strained to get volunteers to the scene of an accident or fire, or to take injured patients to Denver. Peterson can tell nearly the entire history of Summit’s fire and ambulance service through its vehicles.
“Sometimes the sheriff would throw the injured people in the back of his pickup and throw a tarp over them and haul them. That was our emergency service at the time. Either that or the backseat of a car, whatever they had available,” he said. Then one of the local doctors bought a Volkswagen microbus, “if you can believe that. So that was our first ambulance. It didn’t go up Loveland Pass very good, but boy that sucker could go down pretty good,” he said with a laugh.
Then there was the Cadillac from Kansas that served as a combination ambulance-hearse, with an attached siren called ‘The Penetrator.’
“That baby was loud,” Peterson recalled.
Old ‘Smokey Joe,’ the Pontiac, required three quarts of oil to get to Denver. Then came a Chevy, followed by some Dodge vans. None of them ran well, and even the ones that came after had some issue or other. But no matter what, the volunteers figured something out.
Peterson’s wife, Sue, recalled one incident in which the fire engine at the time broke down and couldn’t be started, so the crew ended up hitching it to a truck and slowly towing it to the fire.
Though he was constantly running off to help at emergencies, she was never afraid, knowing he wasn’t alone.
“It seemed like everybody was putting forth all their efforts and working together,” she said, “so I didn’t really worry about him.”
Peterson also said his wife’s support was instrumental. “She was really great, she supported every bit of it. She jumped right in there and helped out.”
Before Interstate 70 and the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel were built, the volunteer crew had to tackle the treacherous curves of Loveland Pass during all seasons.
In one blizzard, Peterson recalled, visibility was so bad that one person stayed in the car to drive, and the other walked ahead with a flashlight, rapping on the fender when it was time to turn.
Improvisation was applied not only mechanically, to keep the engines running, but medically as well, depending on the emergency at hand.
“The biggest problem we had was the truck wrecks, they were just terrible. Loveland Pass has got quite a history to it,” he said. Sometimes it would take hours to extract a person from the wreckage, so the volunteers would have to crawl into it to provide medical attention, anything from IVs to emergency tracheotomies to rigging up bottles for collapsed lungs.
“You did what you had to do. It was all you could do,” Peterson said.
As the years passed, it became clear that Summit County needed a more organized and official setup for its fire and ambulance services. When Dave Parmley arrived in the county in 1981, there were multiple volunteer departments around the county, including Dillon, Dillon Valley, Silverthorne, Frisco and Snake River. He became the fire chief for the Snake River and Keystone areas, and that’s how he met Peterson.
“Jerry has had a great deal of involvement and hard work and influence on bringing together what is the Lake Dillon Fire Protection District today,” Parmley said. Keystone, Dillon, Frisco and Silverthorne now fall under the protection district’s umbrella, of which Parmley is the chief.
“What I have seen over these years is Jerry’s strong commitment to providing the best quality and services that can be provided when it comes to emergency service fire protection. He’s just been very steady and his level of dedication and of course his integrity during this whole time was exceptional and certainly stands out,” he said.
From volunteer firefighter, Peterson gradually moved to board member and board president, a position he held for 51 years and from which he stepped down only last week.
“I think he’s one of those guys that doesn’t desire attention to be brought to him, but is someone that’s an unsung hero, that’s certainly contributed greatly to this county to make it the special place it is today and of community that by and large that supports their emergency services and sees the value of that,” said Parmley. “Not all communities have that, and it’s because of committed citizens like Jerry Peterson and others that have really taken to heart and given a lot to try to meet those needs.”
Parmley has not only known Peterson as a board member, but also seen him in action during fire emergencies.
“He always maintained his cool, even under the most difficult situations,” Parmley said. “Generally, he’d have some kind of quip or sage advice that would provide some levity to the situation.”
Peterson has no plans to leave Summit County, and will likely be easy to find whenever his expertise or advice is needed.
“I’ve got a little boat that hasn’t been in the water for two years,” he said. “If it quits snowing, I’ll try that.”
He and his wife have plenty to look back on.
“We didn’t have dull moments,” said Sue.
And that’s just how they liked it.
“If I had to do it over,” Peterson said, “I wouldn’t do anything different.”
“Sometimes the sheriff would throw the injured people in the back of his pickup and throw a tarp over them and haul them. That was our emergency service at the time.”
Jerry “Doc” Peterson