Fire departments across Spokane County have found ways to retain unvaccinated firefighters, despite a statewide vaccine mandate. But in the city of Spokane, dozens of firefighters will be out of a job Monday.
Gov. Jay Inslee set an Oct. 18 vaccination deadline for health care workers, including firefighters who are licensed as EMTs or paramedics, unless they receive an exemption for medical or religious reasons.
The governor left it up to individual governments and employers to bargain with employees over reasonable accommodations for unvaccinated employees.
The vaccine mandate is the same across Washington, but its implementation has varied widely in the Spokane region.
Some fire departments have had relatively few firefighters request an exemption, and had little trouble implementing additional requirements like masking and social distancing for them.
But the city of Spokane declined to make accommodations for the more than 50 people who initially received exemptions to the mandate, citing the cost and logistical burden of doing so.
Of the 52 exemption requests, 14 have now been rescinded, according to city spokesperson Brian Coddington. Six more have indicated they’re going to receive the vaccine, while two are awaiting advice from their doctor. The city will allow them to take leave in order to buy time to get vaccinated.
That leaves more than two dozen firefighters, out of a department of 318, likely to lose their job over the vaccine come Monday. Several fire department employees filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Thursday asking a judge to block the city from laying off firefighters, but there has not yet been a ruling.
The city gave exempted firefighters six options ahead of the Oct. 18 deadline, including placement on a “layoff list” that would leave them eligible to return to the fire department within three years. No matter which route they take, the firefighters will be considered to have left the city in good standing.
The city was “intentionally as flexible as possible to maintain the relationship with the firefighter,” Coddington said.
The city’s argument is multifaceted. It estimates the cost of daily COVID-19 testing for exempted firefighters would be between $300,000 and $1 million annually, a new burden on top of a budget already reeling from thousands of staff hours already lost due to isolation and quarantine. It’s also concerned about the challenge of enforcing stricter standards for unvaccinated firefighters, the potential liability if they are not followed, and the risk unvaccinated firefighters pose to both the public and their vaccinated colleagues.
There are venues in the city that exclude unvaccinated people, including for major events at the Spokane Arena. The city worries that if an unvaccinated firefighter can’t respond to an emergency in such a facility, it could have to call for backup, lengthening the response time.
Tim Archer, president of Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29, can’t understand why other fire departments have been able to accommodate unvaccinated firefighters but the city of Spokane can’t. Archer is among those who were approved for an exemption on religious grounds, and his last scheduled shift was on Thursday.
“It’s pretty hard when literally all around you, people are being retained,” Archer said, noting that several Spokane firefighters will be applying to jobs at neighboring departments.
The Spokane Valley Fire Department was able to retain all 22 of its firefighters who received an exemption. About 88% of its firefighters are vaccinated.
The department’s goal from the beginning was to ensure it would be able to retain all employees, according to department spokesperson Julie Happy. Among the requirements, unvaccinated employees will be required to wear N95 masks and undergo daily testing and COVID-19 health checks.
“It’s kind of no worse risk than what was happening before,” Happy said.
The cost of the testing will be about $50,000 per year, according to the department, which it believes is lower than the cost of replacing those firefighters. All incoming, entry-level Spokane Valley firefighters will be required to be vaccinated, however.
Rather than have a battalion chief go from station to station to conduct the checks, the department decided to relocate all of its unvaccinated employees to two stations – Station 1 and Station 10 – where battalion chiefs are based.
Unvaccinated firefighters will still be allowed to go on medical calls, but that’s not necessarily the case everywhere.
Spokane County Fire District 3 is the largest district in south Spokane County with about 150 firefighters, both career and volunteer. So far, 128 of those first responders are vaccinated, said Chief Cody Rohrbach.
The district has eight exemption requests on file, but the vast majority of those are from volunteers. Just one career firefighter filed an exemption.
With the district’s mix of volunteer and career staff, Rohrbach said they’re in a unique place to offer more accommodations.
Volunteers who decline to get vaccinated can opt to be classified as fire-only responders, meaning they would not respond to medical calls and no longer be classified as health care workers.
Ten volunteers have opted to take that approach, Rohrbach said. Another four people have chosen to take a leave of absence through the end of the year.
All together with exemptions, shifts to fire-only service, and those who opted to take leave, 22 firefighters are making changes in their work status due to the mandate.
“We gave them all the options and allowed them to choose one that fit them best,” Rohrbach said.
At the all-volunteer Fire District 2 in Fairfield, south of Spokane, the vaccine mandate has not had a significant impact with most first responders already vaccinated, Chief Eric Olson said.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate that way,” Olson said.
Of the approximately 25 volunteers on the roster, Olson said just two or three people declined to get vaccinated.
Such a small number won’t affect the district’s coverage, Olson said. Accommodations for unvaccinated firefighters are still being discussed, he said.
Spokane County Fire District 8 Chief Lonnie Rash said 41 of the district’s 42 response firefighters are fully vaccinated.
Paramedic Cory Miles is the lone unvaccinated responder, but Rash, with support from the fire district commissioners, will provide accommodations to allow Miles to continue working after his religious exemption to the vaccine was approved.
Rash said the details of the accommodations will be finalized by the middle of next week. He said Miles will “more than likely” be placed on paid administrative leave until the accommodations are in place.
More than 30 people spoke in support of Miles at a fire commissioners meeting late last month to try to ensure Miles kept his job. Rash said he and district officials also received several emails, phone calls and letters from people who did not think Miles should be accommodated.
Spokane County Fire District 10 Chief Ken Johnson said his department serving the West Plains is more than 95% fully vaccinated. He said accommodations for three of the four firefighters who requested them have been approved, and the district is still waiting to meet with the fourth member.
Johnson said three firefighters will take a leave of absence to see if the vaccine mandate changes, but said they could also change their mind and get vaccinated.
He said the approved accommodations include wearing personal protective equipment at fire stations and while responding to calls. Unvaccinated firefighters will continue to be able to provide direct care to patients.
“We’re lucky in the fact that we have small numbers to deal with,” Johnson said. “If we would have had 20 of our members try to ask for accommodations, we probably could not have done that.”
In Spokane, Archer noted he’s already subject to extra masking and social distancing requirements, and that unvaccinated firefighters have offered to pay for their own PPE.
“They’re granting accommodations for me today, then suddenly it’s impossible,” Archer said.
Archer points to the city of Tacoma, which is a similarly sized department with a comparable number of approved vaccine exemptions. Of the required personnel, 328, or 85%, have received the vaccine, while 58 have received an exemption, according to department spokesperson Joe Meinecke.
Its protocols for unvaccinated firefighters include social distancing, masking at all times, personal protective equipment when responding to any incident, and daily health screenings. The department still has not determined a testing regimen.
Asked if Spokane is an outlier in the way it has responded to the mandate, Coddington said, “Spokane has done what Spokane needs to do for the community.”
A group of unvaccinated city firefighters wrote letters earlier this month to Mayor Nadine Woodward and the Spokane City Council, pleading for a reversal that appears less and less likely to occur.
One persistent belief is that firefighters who have had COVID-19 have a lasting, natural immunity.
“Having recently had Covid, survived, and now in possession of robust God-given natural immunity I find it hard to understand how I am perceived as a health threat to myself, my work family, and the community I serve,” wrote 17-year firefighter Joseph Hoewarth.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people who have had COVID-19 still get vaccinated. It notes that the length of natural immunity after contracting COVID-19 is uncertain. Early research shows that people who have had COVID-19 but remain unvaccinated are twice as likely to get it again as their vaccinated counterparts.
With Monday’s deadline approaching, Archer sees little reason for hope that Chief Brian Schaeffer will reverse course.
“I have no reason to believe he’s going to change his mind, and that’s been the hardest part for the guys,” Archer said. “It’s their chief.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Oct. 16, 2021, to reflect that unvaccinated firefighters with Spokane County Fire District 10 will still be able to work directly with patients.
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