Rick Freier, a fire investigator who’s been with the Spokane Valley Fire Department since 1999, sized up the students in Cristine Lapke‘s seventh-grade science class Wednesday and looked them in the eyes.
Summer is around the corner, which means more kids will be at home and may be tempted to play with fire.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I know that this age group (10 to 14) is responsible for a lot of fires, ” Freier said to the class at Centennial Middle School.
Freier let that sink in, then asked whether anyone had younger siblings at home.
Half of the 15 students raised their hands. Freier told them about a 3-year-old Spokane Valley boy who was badly burned after an accident with an instant lighter.
Their attention fully fixed, Freier continued his presentation. It was equal parts science, entertainment and a call for social responsibility from his audience – a reminder that firefighters do a lot more than fight fires.
Freier’s presentation is part of Forensic Fire Investigation 101, a department program nationally recognized for its unique and innovative approach to solving the problem of youth-set fires. Students learned about the effects of oxygen on flames, the capacity of a kitchen stovetop to burn through metal and the risks of adolescent curiosity when it comes to matches.
“He really knows how to engage the students,” Lapke said of Freier, who’s known in the industry as “The Fire Science Guy.” “The other part is that he backs up the science and brings it down into terms they can understand.”
Spokane firefighter and fire investigator Rick Freier, center, talks with “investigators” Millie Hutchins, left, and Axel Cannon, 13, right, about identifying foot prints in a class of middleschoolers at Centennial Middle School Wednesday, June 1, 2022 in Spokane Valley, Washington. Freier has developed and taught a class for middleschool students that combines fire science, fire safety and fire investigation. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
The program also included a presentation from Patrick Erickson, communications and regional manager for Spokane Regional Emergency Communications.
Erickson opened with a pop quiz: How many 911 calls do you think are made in Spokane County each year?
The highest guess – 100,000 – wasn’t even close.
“It’s actually about 300,000,” Erickson said.
After confirming that almost every student in the room had a cellphone, Erickson talked about its most critical asset: the ability to call 911 and potentially save a life.
Then he put them on the spot. Erickson asked them to imagine they’re stuck at home during a break-in, then told them that they also can text 911 to get help.
Students also were reminded of the importance of communicating their location, including address, cross streets and landmarks.
Freier took over from there with the main event: an investigation into the causes of a recent home fire.
He opened with another true story from Spokane Valley: of a boy on a bike who had just reported a house fire.
The house was a total loss.
After an investigation, Freier observed burn marks on the boy’s shoes and backpack, and the child confessed to accidentally starting it.
With a bit of prodding, students examined a large photo of a burned-out living room and eventually were able to “solve” the case.
After the first of three shows Wednesday morning, Freier said he hopes it will make a difference.
“I’m really tired of fighting,” he said. “It’s their choice. They’re getting bigger; they need to realize that the decisions they make have consequences.”
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