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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rick Freier, longtime firefighter and handler of arson dog Mako, retires from service in Spokane Valley

By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

The firefighter who once joked that he had the most famous knees in town since they were always in photographs with his arson dog, Mako, has retired after 24 years with the Spokane Valley Fire Department.

Rick Freier’s retirement party Friday wasn’t just about saying farewell to his colleagues, it was also about raising money for Toys for Tots, a program near and dear to his heart. Freier raised $3,030 for the Marine Corps Reserve program that gives toys to needy children every Christmas.

During his career, Freier fought and investigated hundreds of fires, pulled car crash victims from their vehicles and treated medical emergencies. He was perhaps best known for his work with Mako, who was the only arson dog in the area from 2000 to 2015, when the black Lab retired. The two continued to consult together on a handful of fires each year until 2019. Freier also taught hundreds of classes on the scientific method to middle school students throughout the Spokane Valley area.

Capt. Duane Hughes, who has been with the Spokane Valley Fire Departments, said Freier’s work in public relations, including his classroom visits, were invaluable to the department. His work with Mako was also similar to a public relations role, since Frier frequently represented the department at fires across the region.

“He really is one of the most caring people on the job,” Hughes said. “We couldn’t have had a better handler for Mako.”

Freier’s former boss, retired Fire Marshal Kevin Miller, also praised Freier’s work.

“Rick’s good people,” Miller said. “He’s one of the big reasons we were so successful as a fire prevention unit. What a great ambassador for the department.”

Freier was working under Miller when he first thought about working with a dog.

“Not long after he became a fire investigator, he got the hairbrained idea to get a dog,” Miller said. But Miller, like others in the department, were soon sold on the idea.

Assistant Fire Marshal Bill Clifford said he enjoyed working with Freier. “I loved working beside him,” he said. “We became pretty good friends.”

After Mako retired, Freier stepped down from his position as fire investigator and went back on the truck as a firefighter, working out of Station 9. After years of being on call 24/7 with Mako, Freier wanted to spend more time with his family.

His captain at Station 9 was Paul Kimball, who prepared a “greatest hits” video of Freier for his retirement party.

“Rick means a lot to me,” Kimball said. “He’s been a good friend. I had a lot of great pictures and great memories. Rick’s more than a firefighter, and that’s what I wanted to show in this. I’m going to miss him very much.”

Though Freier’s retirement was official last week, he hasn’t been on the job for some time. He was diagnosed with skin cancer more than a year ago and eventually had to go on medical leave during his treatment. After the treatment was over, he tried a return to work but was unable to, even though his cancer is gone.

“The side effects of the medicine are ugly,” Freier said. “I can live with the side effects. I just can’t work anymore.”

Freier developed an autoimmune disorder called medicine-induced eczema, which becomes worse in the heat. When he tried to return to work, he would break out in hives when he put on his heavy bunker gear. His thyroid also quit working.

Freier intends to keep doing his work with Toys for Tots. He joined the Marine Corps Reserve four days after he graduated from high school in 1989 and served for 20 years. He’s now a member of the Marine Corps League and has continued working with Toys for Tots.

As his two daughters grew up, they helped sort toys every December. In 2013 his daughter, Josie, was killed in a car crash along with one of her best friends, McKenzie Mott. Freier held a toy drive in his daughter’s honor soon after the crash, with the toys going to Toys for Tots. Since then, Freier has taken over running the Marine Corps League’s annual spaghetti dinner that raises money for Toys for Tots, renaming it the Josie McKenzie Spaghetti Feed. That dinner is set for Nov. 18 this year.

“I want to make it bigger,” Freier said.

Clifford said that he’ll miss working with Freier.

“We’ve all got to retire sometime,” Clifford said. “I hope he enjoys retirement.”