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`Operation Cover Up' is under way

Got any old blankets or coats lying around the house? How about those canned goods you bought but don't really plan to eat?

Instead of ignoring or wasting them, Salt Lake Valley firefighters are hoping to talk you into donating them to the homeless and hungry.All you have to do is drop them off at any fire station and they'll deliver them. It's all part of what's become known as "Operation Cover Up."

Firefighters from around the valley united Friday morning to mark the beginning of the firefighters' three-month drive to provide warmth, food and even toys to the less fortunate. They're asking for blankets and coats - new or used - food and new toys that they wrap at Christmas time for homeless children spending the holidays in the shelter.

Fitz Petersen, a firefighter/paramedic with Salt Lake County Fire, started the program about four years ago with the support of the department. He'd spent a lot of time helping to serve lunch to the homeless so he was acquainted with their needs.

As a firefighter, he's also responded to calls where a person sleeping outdoors was in danger of being killed by the elements.

"That's something that directly affects us as firefighters," he said. So before the leaves have even begun to fall, they're asking area residents to reach into their closets, their cupboards and their hearts.

Petersen said he knows there are many requests for charity during this season especially, so he said they'll take whatever people can give.

"I'm not proud at all," he said. "I've had great experiences."

The effort has gotten bigger and the donations better each year, he said.

"People always have old coats and blankets they need to get rid of, and I say give them to me and let me put them to use," he said. "But in the past two years, people are going out and buying new coats and blankets. That amazes me.

"I'm very humbled by the response," Petersen said. "People can drop (items) off at the fire station and I'll pick it up."

The firefighters spend time on their days off collecting and then distributing the items they collect. Petersen said he usually delivers them just before lunch so the rescue workers end up helping serve food to the homeless, too.

Last year a man saw them unloading the blankets and asked if he could earn one by helping them unload.

"We gave him a blanket, a coat and some food for helping us," he said, noting it's those moments that make the effort worthwhile.

The firefighters have no set goal, Peterson said, only that they hope to exceed last year's collection.

Anyone interested in donating clean used or new blankets or coats, food or new toys can drop them off at any fire station from now until Jan. 1.