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Two firefighters join department

New firefighter Drew Peterson, left, stands with Fire Captain Dan Farren, center, and new firefighter Zachary Brown.

Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 8:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 8:54 a.m.

Petaluma's newest firefighters, Zachary Brown and Drew Peterson, posed for a picture in front of the downtown fire station Thursday morning dressed in full gear — only to have buckets of ice cold water dumped over them by their fellow firefighters hiding on top of the station house.

Brown, a 29-year-old former Rancho Adobe firefighter and Santa Rosa Junior College fire academy graduate, and Peterson, a 26-year-old former CalFire and volunteer firefighter, are filling two of the five open firefighter positions in the Petaluma Fire Department. They were sworn in during a ceremony Thursday afternoon — long after they had cleaned up from the firehouse prank.

The newbies are also the first public safety employees to be hired in Petaluma since the city adopted its “second-tier” pension program last year. Unlike their more senior counterparts, who have been able to retire with up to 90 percent of their salary at age 50, Brown and Peterson won't be able to do so until age 55.

In fact, recruitment for the two open positions in the Fire Department did not seem at all hampered by the city's new pension package, as evidenced by the more than 500 people who applied for the jobs.

“This is a major step up from the Rancho Adobe retirement plan,” said Brown, referring to the rural fire district's pension plan that offers firefighters up to 60 percent of their salary when they retire at age 50.

Both Brown and Peterson added that they weren't thinking about their pensions when they decided to become firefighters.

“This has been my dream since I was 13 years old,” said Peterson, who grew up in Sebastopol and started his fire career in the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District's Explorer program at age 16. “I wanted to work in Petaluma because of the tremendous pride this department has for serving this community.”

Fire Battalion Chief Phil Sutsos said that even with the reduced pensions, Petaluma remains one of the most sought-after departments to work for in the state.

“We had no problems recruiting to our department because we have a great department and because we still offer strong compensation,” said Sutsos.

After beating out the stiff competition through a first round of panel interviews, a second private interview with Fire Chief Larry Anderson and making it through physical and mental examinations, Peterson, from Sebastopol, and Brown, from Rohnert Park, both endured a grueling two and a half week training course to prepare them for life on the job in Petaluma.

“The training was put on by both on-duty crews and off-duty firefighters to teach the guys the way we do things here,” said Battalion Chief Jeff Holden at the swearing in ceremony. “It included ropes, ladder, hose and equipment training. They finished today with a recruitment test and did very well.”

It was after this test that the firehouse staff engaged in a bit of hazing to welcome Brown and Peterson to the squad, arranging to have them doused in water while fellow firefighters video recorded the moment on their smartphones.

“I'm very proud to be able to join Petaluma's department because of its tradition and professionalism,” said Brown jokingly, as he grinned happily after the short swearing in ceremony.

But come Saturday, it was straight to business for Brown and Peterson. Brown began work at Station 1 downtown, while Peterson was sent to Station 3 on South McDowell Boulevard.

Sutsos said that Brown and Peterson are welcome additions to the fire department. “Having these two positions back helps alleviate a lot of overtime and makes it safer for everyone,” he said. “Crews are less tired, less stressed and better prepared when we have adequate staffing here.”

Based on a city plan to cut costs, the Petaluma Fire Department had agreed to operate with five fewers firefighters from June 30 – Dec. 31. Now that it has refilled two of those five positions, the department will begin the search for three more firefighters, whose positions are expected to be reinstated in the city's budget after July 31.

Brown and Peterson will each earn approximately $85,000 annually. They join the 58-person department with an annual operating budget of $10.4 million.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at Janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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