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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Valley Fire Department quietly celebrates 80th

John Nelson, of the Spokane Valley Fire Department, rolls out the new ariel ladder truck, April 7, 2017, at Greenacres Station 10.  The formerly named Spokane County Fire Protection District 1 marked its 80th anniverary in March 2020. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
John Nelson, of the Spokane Valley Fire Department, rolls out the new ariel ladder truck, April 7, 2017, at Greenacres Station 10. The formerly named Spokane County Fire Protection District 1 marked its 80th anniverary in March 2020. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Last week the Spokane Valley Fire Department marked its 80th anniversary, a milestone that passed with less fanfare than usual as the region and state grapple with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The department formed as Spokane County Fire Protection District 1 in an age when the Spokane Valley area was known for its small farms and apple orchards. It started with a handful of firefighters and three leased fire engines. The first fire station was little more than a barn.

In 2007 the name was officially changed to the Spokane Valley Fire Department. The department has come far since its early days and now has 10 fire stations and 200 employees who respond to more than 18,000 calls in a year. The department spans Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, Millwood, Otis Orchards and part of unincorporated Spokane County.

Buck Haney has watched the department grow and change since he was hired in 1971. He spent 13 years as a firefighter and then 13 years as a dispatcher before he retired in 1996. The department shifted from hiring its own dispatchers to the Combined Communication Center that handled dispatch duties for all Spokane County fire departments about two years after he retired, Haney said.

When he was first hired there were only six stations, and each station usually had a crew of two on duty. These days, however, each station has three or four people on duty at any one time.

“We had no medics,” Haney said. “We had EMTs only. We had one ladder truck and it had no pump. The seven years I drove it, it was a pretty busy truck. It was quite different.”

Haney was rehired by the department in 2000 as a civilian driver, delivering mail and other items to all the stations. That puts him in a position to see just how much the department has changed.

“Their training has changed quite a bit,” he said. “It’s a different job anymore. It’s a young man’s job.”

Last year firefighter-engineer Doug Salmon created a half-hour documentary about the department that included interviews with current and retired firefighters who served as long ago as the 1940s.

“I was trying to get people from each decade,” he said. “They each have their own piece of the story.”

Salmon didn’t set out to do a video. He was on limited duty after a surgery and wanted a project to work on. He started looking for historical photos of the department.

“I was trying to get the pictures up in the admin (building) because I hate bare walls,” he said.

From there he got the idea of doing a video, something that could be shown to new recruits so they could learn the history of the department.

“I just knew we didn’t have anything cohesive and a lot of the new guys coming on didn’t know anything about the history,” he said. “That kind of got me going, and I just kept going with it.”

He was given the green light to create the video and hired videographer Aaron Mayo to help. Firefighter Ken Witter, who used to work as a DJ, provided the narration. Salmon said he got his hands on a lot of historical information from retired Deputy Chief Larry Rider, whose father, Doug Rider, was chief of the department for several years. He also got some help from the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum.

The firefighters in the video don’t just talk about the history of the department and how things used to be. One talked about a call that stuck with him that involved the death of a child.

“I wanted the new recruits to know that it’s a great job, but there will be some heart-wrenching stuff and it’s OK to seek help if you need it,” Salmon said.

Salmon’s time on light duty only lasted a couple of weeks, but it took him almost a year to finish the video. He worked on it mostly while he was off duty. When it was finished Salmon premiered it to a crowd of mostly current and retired firefighters and their families at CenterPlace last year.

“Everybody was pretty happy with it,” he said.

The video, “SVFD: Our Story,” is available on YouTube.

Salmon said he didn’t create the video with the department’s 80th anniversary in mind.

But Capt. Scott Crawford, who works out of Station 9, was keeping track. At the end of last year he led an effort to create a 2020 calendar full of historical photos and facts to mark the department’s 80th anniversary. Each month features a different station or facility.

The calendars went fast, but there are still a few available at some of the fire stations, Crawford said. “They were wildly successful,” he said.

Even with the current pandemic, Crawford said he and his fellow firefighters continue to focus on doing the best job they can for the community. “This whole COVID thing is just one more thing in a long line of things we have to adapt to,” he said. “It just continues to be the best job in the world.”

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