New UFA chief ready for ‘less drama,’ ‘more action’
Jan 18, 2017 04:42PM ● Published by Tori La Rue
Dan Petersen joined UFA as its new chief on Jan. 17. Petersen said he’s hoping to bring a new level of transparency and leadership to Utah’s largest fire agency. (Unified Fire Authority)
Six months after “City Weekly” reported on questionable bonuses and use of credit cards among top Unified Fire Authority (UFA) officials, Utah’s largest fire service has a new head. Dan Petersen, who started his full-time fire-fighting career in 1980, claimed his first day as UFA’s fire chief on Jan. 17.
Petersen, who’s been the fire chief, CEO and budget officer for Jackson County Fire District 3 for more than six years, holds a master’s in management from Southern Oregon State University, a Bachelor of Science in fire administration from Western Oregon State University and an Associate of Science in fire science from Rogue Community College.
His experience with wildland and urban interface fires and “proven track record of building trust” launched him to the top of the pool of more than 30 applications, according to Mike Watson, who was the interim chief after former Chief Michael Jensen resigned.
“As I have explained to our employees, Chief Petersen is exactly what UFA needs,” Watson said. “He is very people-oriented and able to build sound relationships. He is confident in his abilities to lead UFA, and the ad-hoc committee members were highly impressed with his leadership examples and abilities.”
Petersen said he’s not nervous to jump into UFA where audits on former high-ups’ incentive pay and credit-card spending are still underway. Jensen and former Deputy Chief Gaylord Scott spent more than $50,000 on company credit cards and, along with two other top UFA officials, racked up more than $100,000 each in total incentives from 2011 to 2015.
“I have already met with many of the staff about establishing leadership expectations and let them know that we won’t be tolerating unethical behavior or anything in that vein. We must do the right thing every time. The organization is ready for less drama and more action in the right area,” Petersen said. “I’ll be reviewing the leadership organization, and making sure leadership is there to support the firefighters who are doing that job every day to respond to your house and take care of your needs — that’s where my work will be going.”
While Petersen said he knows it may take a while to gain public trust because of his predecessors, he said he’s hoping to expedite that process by increasing public transparency of the budget.
“My goal, and that of our current finance director, is to let the public see how the money is spent and where it fits,” he said.
Petersen took his first days in Utah to get to know the people he will be working with by scheduling meetings with all stations and staff — that’s a total of more than 120 meetings. Petersen said it’s important for he and the UFA firefighters to know each other.
“They are the ones performing service every day on the street and will give me a better view of what we need to do,” Petersen said. “The meetings will make sure we are all clear on the kind of leadership vision, mission and values fit what is best for the community, and from those discussions, we will generate a list of action items to tackle as a team.”
The strong community feel at UFA and dedication of the firefighters is familiar to Petersen, he said, reminding him of his work at Fire District 3. That’s one of the reasons he decided to apply for the position after taking a trip to Utah to visit.
Petersen said he wasn’t looking for a new job but was slowly convinced by “a trusted recruiter” that it would be a good move. Job changes tend to happen unexpectedly, Petersen added, telling the story of how he chose to join the fire service.
While attending college, Petersen noticed that a student in his chemistry class responded to a pager. He approached the student about it and found out he was working as a volunteer firefighter and living — rent free — at the fire station.
“I thought that was a pretty cool opportunity, so in 1979, I started living in the fire station while going to college,” he said. “After a year of that, I realized this is what I wanted to do. I fell into it.”
Petersen worked his way up from firefighter to engineer and then to captain before becoming a battalion chief, then deputy chief and finally a fire chief. After nearly 38 years in Southern Oregon’s fire industry, Petersen fell into another opportunity — one at UFA.
The decision wasn’t as easy, according to Petersen, but he said he feels like he made the right choice.
“My wife and I have taken this day by day,” he said. “Our kids are out of the house, and I’m done being depressed about that, so we’re ready for the next change. It will be an adventure, and I’m excited to experience Utah.”