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

Three familiar names on the ballot for Spokane Valley fire board

Two former politicians and a recently retired firefighter are vying to become the newest member of the Spokane Valley Fire Department’s board of commissioners.

Spokane Valley fire commissioners oversee the Spokane Valley Fire Department, which also serves Liberty Lake, Millwood and parts of unincorporated Spokane County. The department has a roughly $57 million annual budget and 220 employees. Fire commissioners can earn up to $12,000 a year.

With incumbent fire commissioner Bill Anderson not seeking re-election, three well-known Valley residents are hoping to fill his seat. Voters will whittle the field down to two at the August primary election.

George Orr, 80, is a former Democratic state lawmaker who served in the House of Representatives from 1991 to 1995. He spent more than three decades as a Spokane Valley firefighter after joining the department in 1970.

Diana Wilhite, 77, was elected to the inaugural Spokane Valley City Council in 2003. She had a two-year stint as the city’s mayor and left the council in 2009 after losing a re-election bid. Even after leaving office, Wilhite has remained a prominent figure in Valley politics.

Rick Freier, 52, had a 24-year career in the Spokane Valley Fire Department and spent much of that time as an investigator. He became one of the department’s more prominent figures while serving as the handler and partner of Mako, the arson dog, and doing fire safety talks in schools. Frier retired this spring over side effects he’s experienced after having skin cancer.

Freier comes into the race with a handful of ideas. First and foremost, he wants to work on preventing crises before they happen.

By placing a greater emphasis on public education, Freier said the department could do even more to prevent fires, car crashes, firefighter health issues and falls – the leading cause of accidental death for seniors.

Freier said he’d like to dedicate more training time to wildland firefighting. While the Spokane Valley Fire Department mainly responds to urban emergencies, the agency also helps rural fire districts fight wildfires.

“Wildland firefighting is a whole lot different than fighting fires in buildings,” Freier said.

Freier also wants the department to expand its use of SUVs for medical calls, instead of driving to incidents in fire engines, a move he says could come with significant cost savings. The department would benefit from having an ambulance too, he said, for mass casualty events.

Wilhite said she’s running because she enjoys being a public servant. She said she wouldn’t come into the job with any specific agenda if elected.

“I don’t like to go into a position with preconceived notions of what the changes should be,” she said. “I need to go in and see how it’s running.”

While she doesn’t have any policy plans, Wilhite said she’d encourage the department to hire more female firefighters. The department only has two, she said.

“There are women out there that are capable of being firefighters, and I believe they should be given the opportunity to do the job if they’re qualified,” Wilhite said.

Orr said he’d like the department to give current employees more opportunities to rise through the ranks and possibly become fire chiefs.

“I don’t see a path for our employees to become chiefs,” he said. “In the past 15 years or 20 years, we’ve hired chiefs from out of state.”

Orr also criticized the current commissioners for their lack of firefighting experience. Of the five board members, only the outgoing Anderson is a former firefighter.

“The beef I have with the fire commissioners, they don’t go to the stations, they don’t ride on the fire trucks, they don’t know what the job is,” Orr said. “They do things that are really good business decisions, which are not good leadership decisions.”