South King Fire and Rescue may lose over a dozen unvaccinated firefighters by mid-October due to policies mandated by their fire commissioners and Washington state officials.
In August, Gov. Jay Inslee mandated all healthcare providers, including firefighters, be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, or they could face job termination.
At a South King Fire Board of Fire Commissioners meeting on Sept. 23, about 20 firefighters, community members and family members of firefighters spoke during public comment.
“Last month’s motion stripped the rights of our membership to serve the community as they were hired to do,” said Battalion Chief Joel Barrett, adding that the board doesn’t have the right to supersede the government.
Many public comment speakers expressed their disappointment in the board for adopting a policy at last month’s meeting forbidding unvaccinated firefighters from providing patient care. Some asked the board to rescind their vote, or go into executive session to discuss their decision after hearing the public comments.
For a firefighter to be considered fully vaccinated by the October date, the deadline to receive a Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine, or the second dose of either Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, was Oct. 4.
“You have stripped me of a choice to do what’s best for me and my family. You are ending my livelihood, as well as my purpose, with South King Fire and Rescue,” said firefighter Ryleigh Carr, who has been with the department for three years.
Several firefighters asked questions to the board members and were met with little to no response from the board.
Firefighter Timothy Gurule asked the board what he should tell his family on Oct. 18 when he is terminated from his career: “Why commissioners — if the state allows a legal path to accommodation — will you not relent?”
Possible accommodations used by other fire departments in the state include daily testing, masking when inside stations or around others, and proper personal protective equipment.
None of the commissioners provided a response.
“We’ve been working with your Local and we’ve been working with a variety of medical program directors to try to find an answer for you and right now I don’t have one,” said Fire Chief Vic Pennington on Sept. 23.
Since the meeting, no further action has been taken. The Mirror requested an interview with board chair Bill Gates, but Gates declined to participate in a phone or in-person interview after the Mirror declined to send written questions via email.
In a statement to the Mirror, Gates said:
“The Board heard public comment concerning the Proclamation at its regular meeting dated September 23, 2021, but took no further action on the matter. There are no Commissioner meetings planned to discuss this decision. To the extent that any individual wishes to remain a health care provider employed by SKFR, they must be fully vaccinated by October 18, 2021,” his email states. Gates said the process of establishing reasonable accommodations has been delegated to the department’s administration.
Twenty-four firefighters applied for vaccine exemptions, all of which were approved by the department, said Assistant Chief Gordon Goodsell. As of Oct. 5, the department is 88% vaccinated and some of those 24 firefighters have recently been vaccinated, he added.
An estimated 18 firefighters remain unvaccinated.
“The next step in the exemption application is an interactive process to identify reasonable accommodations available to those members,” Goodsell said. The department has identified three positions available to firefighters working in an exemption — two positions in the fire prevention division and one position in the logistics division.
Firefighters who work in these divisions can do so for up to six months, but then they will need to be vaccinated to continue working as a firefighter, Goodsell said.
To prepare for the possibility of losing about 15 firefighters, the department’s minimum staffing may be reduced for an amount of time. This means crews will also face a higher call volume and may depend more on assistance from neighboring fire departments to meet community needs, Goodsell said.
To date, there have not been any known COVID-19 cases among firefighters linked to patient contact nor any positive cases among patients linked to contact with firefighters, Goodsell said.
On Sept. 23, the board approved to allow one or more commissioners to attend meetings remotely as long as an indoor masking requirement is in place by the state.
The next meeting is at 5 p.m. Oct. 26 at Station 68.