We all thought we were in this fight with the coronavirus together, based on what the experts have been telling us are the rewards of vaccination for the greater good.
Apparently that was our misunderstanding. Over the last few weeks, we have learned that some teachers groups and state employees along several firefighter unions have come out in opposition to Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate to get vaccinated by Oct. 18 or risk losing your job.
State employees recently settled their disagreement without a change in Inslee’s mandate. But it is teachers and firefighters that we look to as heroes in these troubled times. Firefighters hold a special responsibility. They are the first on the scene when we need help. Because they are Emergency Medical Technicians and receive paramedic training, they qualify as health workers and fall under the governor’s criteria. Many of them don’t like the governor’s mandate and our disappointment with their opposition is justified because their attitude is troubling when their first concern should be the community. But it isn’t complicated.
With public interest in the stories about the issue, one firefighter commented: “We’re going to be forced to decide whether to take the vaccine or seek alternatives.” Some firefighters are considering looking for other jobs, moving out of state or retiring rather than complying with the mandate. They also point out that with wildfires and increased calls, it has been a difficult 18 months and the work force has been stretched. Several fire departments in Pierce County worry how they will meet staffing requirements.
Aaron James, who represents 430 firefighters in Graham, Central Pierce, South Pierce and Orting, estimates that only 30% of his membership has not been vaccinated. Allyson Hinzman, president of the Tacoma firefighters with 412 members, says the mandate took away the rights of firefighters to choose the best option — and wants to see alternatives like frequent testing or masks.
The governor’s office has said several times that they listened to stakeholders, engaged local leaders, and concluded vaccines are the most effective tool for workers and community members to fight the virus. Some of the smaller departments may have some difficulty with staffing, but larger ones should be prepared. East Pierce Fire and Rescue Chief Jon Parkinson said the department will comply with the requirement: “We have a dynamic staffing plan, which is designed to accommodate issues such as weather, injuries, illness and disasters.”
Others say the biggest problem for the firefighters is their perception of lack of respect. Going from being heroes to being required to get a vaccine to go to work may have been hard on their egos.
In Auburn, the union representing the Valley Regional Fire Authority, which represents employees in Auburn, Pacific and Algona, opposes the governor’s mandate. VRFA is in the process of checking vaccination records. Recently, South King Fire and Rescue’s board of commissioners, which serves Federal Way and Des Moines, passed a new policy that would prohibit unvaccinated firefighters from working with patients despite opposition from many fire department employees who are against the governor’s mandate. Commissioner Mark Thompson said: “If you don’t get the vaccine, you’re not going to deliver patient care. You’re not going to expose citizens that we’re supposed to be protecting to the virus.” SKFR Chief Vic Pennington will write a letter to the governor expressing the department’s and employees’ concerns. It is estimated that 74% of the uniformed SKFR staff is vaccinated. The union joined with 10 other unions to send a letter to the governor stating their reasoning — “to defend our members’ freedom of medical choice” — and said they felt like the SKFR Board was being disrespectful. Union president Ryan Herrera said the union is not against the vaccines, but is against the loss of personal freedom to make medical decisions as well as the deadline of Oct. 18.
This comes down to following orders. We all have bosses and the fire service is one where employees are trained to follow orders whether fighting a fire or following medical direction. Because to do otherwise could put someone’s life in jeopardy, which is exactly what is happening here.
Fire chiefs are supposed to be leaders and more is expected of them. However, Vashon Fire Chief Charles Krimmert has said he does not intend to get vaccinated and is placing his board of commissioners in a very difficult position regarding his continued employment — although the commissioners did say they expect to be in compliance in October. Much of the firefighting is done by volunteers in this small community with only two employees. The other one, a firefighter with an EMT license, is unvaccinated.
Patients and the public at large have a right to expect medical providers to be vaccinated.
The governor’s order is clear, as is the reasoning behind it, and if firefighters continue to undermine their own position by choosing their ego over the communities they serve, it may not be as difficult to replace them as they seem to think. If we truly are all in this together, the firefighters need to show the leadership we expect from them and get vaccinated, rather than try to put political pressure on their commissioners and the governor to change his mandate.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact email@example.com.