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Prepared for the worst, he’s in with the best

Larry Rider, deputy chief of Spokane Valley Fire Department, says that firefighters are universally respected and trusted. “But if we lose the public trust, we don't have anything,” he said. (Colin Mulvany)
Larry Rider, deputy chief of Spokane Valley Fire Department, says that firefighters are universally respected and trusted. “But if we lose the public trust, we don't have anything,” he said. (Colin Mulvany)

Life has taught Valley native self-reliance and the importance of community

Larry Rider, deputy chief of Spokane Valley Fire Department, has lived his entire life within five miles of his fire-station office at 10319 E. Sprague Ave.

Rider, 54, has worked for Spokane Valley Fire for 32 years, under six different chiefs.

He is known in fire and safety circles for telling it like it is. So when he says his current chief – Mike Thompson – is the best boss yet, you know Rider’s not brown-nosing anyone.

Fire season heats up in the Inland Northwest in August, so it seemed a good time for a Wise Words chat with Rider.

• I was born at my grandmother’s maternity home on Gillis Road. It was the Torrey Maternity Home. She was a midwife. My grandfather Torrey ran a blacksmith shop. My great-grandfather Schafer, who Schafer Road is named after, sold ice from the Ponderosa pond up there on about 44th. I grew up on Mission and Bowdish and now I live on Buckeye and Barker.

• The Valley has changed so much. I watched the fields go from orchards to homes and apartment complexes. The roads got bigger. I wouldn’t move out of the Valley because then I couldn’t vote here. I wouldn’t allow myself not to be a participant in my own destiny or the destiny of the community.

• When I was about 14, I got dropped off at a farm, because my grandmother knew a farmer that needed help out in Edwall. I learned how to drive a gas truck, drain truck, combine, cat, heavy equipment. I did it for about six summers. I came to the dinner table with the family but I slept alone in a 10-by-10 bunkhouse.

You learn how to deal with things yourself. You got up early. I’m still an early riser. I like the smell of the morning. It was hard work. You got dirty. You dealt with it.

• Was I a boy who wanted to be a fireman when I grew up? No.

• Misconception about firefighters? Maybe that they are such heroes. They are just a really good slice of the society that we live in.

• We are running in when everyone is running out. We have an air pack and equipment we know and trust. A fire is exciting, exhilarating, dangerous. What little boys and girls don’t want to play with something a little dangerous?

• We have 155 firefighters. All men. We’ve tried over the years to recruit women. We get a few in the civil service process, but we have not been successful in getting them through the civil service written test at the same time as the physical ability test to get them on the list to enable them to be hired. We’re as open as any agency. We had one woman for a few years. She did a good job. There’s no prejudice here against women. We just can’t seem to get them in.

• There are moments in everyone’s career that are defining. There’s been a fire and the firefighters are shoveling the damaged and ruined things out the window of a second floor. I was outside one day years ago and here’s this little kid sitting there and then you recognize that this was his room. All this stuff being shoveled out in a pile is his stuff. And you get down on a knee and you talk to him. It could be your son, your grandson. You did a good thing. You put the fire out. You saved the home. But here’s this little guy and all he cares about is his stuff, and his stuff is gone.

• Firefighters come in young and buff and end up bent and older. When Chief Thompson came here, he said, “Let’s do wellness.” We put (exercise) equipment in all the stations. We taught them how to count calories and cook. We’ve had nutritionists. We’ve had doctors with body parts say, “This is what happens to your liver, your brain.”

We’ve been into wellness about five years. We’re self-insured. Our self-insurance rate last year went up 2 percent. That’s all. Back when I first came on, they’d get oysters and they’d batter fry them. Or the guy would take bacon grease and pour it over his eggs. You could kill a horse. They wondered why they were dying of heart attacks. Today you’ll see the guys steaming vegetables. It’s just an entirely different culture than it was 32 years ago.

• Will it be a bad fire season this year? Well, the fuels are wetter. The big logs. The grasses. When they dry out, they burn. So if they stay wetter longer, you’re good. It will dry out and it will burn. But it will be a shorter period of time between when it dries out and when the fall rains and snows come again.

• At least 80 percent of our emergency responses are medical. The other 20 percent is fire and rescue. All our firefighters are EMTs. When I came on, the EMT program was just starting.

More change is on the way. Let’s say you drop a nurse into each of the fire stations during flu season. Instead of going all the way downtown to get a flu shot, you stop by your local fire station.

We have facilities that are public. We have trained people. People trust us because they know who we are. We are still the most cost-effective way to provide services across a spectrum.

• How you prepare for an emergency? The gist of it is you take care of you, you take care of your family, you take care of your neighbors and then see if you can help communitywide.

You’re in your house in a snowstorm. You’re on a cul-de-sac and all the houses are just like yours. You’re looking out the window and your neighbor’s house collapses.

First, you yell at your wife to get out of the house, because if your house collapses, now I have two families trapped. Get out. Dial 911.

Then what do you do? You don’t run to his house. You run to your neighbor’s house that hasn’t collapsed. You get them out. You get everybody else. Then you shovel off your roof. Then you start shoveling off all the other roofs.

• One of my defining moments was Ice Storm (the paralyzing November 1996 storm). You start walking down the street. People are home, cold, afraid.

And then you hear it. There is laughter and kids playing, and then you see it. A big bonfire. All the lawn chairs are out. Kids playing hide and seek. Roasting hot dogs. Someone got them together. Made a fire. Those kids didn’t know it was a disaster.

We had to go door to door to find the people not able to take care of themselves. Every home I knocked on, they were so grateful. People with nothing would come to the door and say: “We’re fine, but check on Margaret two doors down, and thank you so much for caring.”

• Disaster is when whatever you are prepared to handle has overwhelmed you. I prepare for everything. It takes me two weeks to get ready to go camping. I’ve thought of every single thing that can happen. Everyone wants to go camping with me.