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

Unvaccinated firefighters have Spokane-area fire chiefs concerned

Paramedics administer a shot to a pickup driver at the Spokane Fire Training Center Field House in this first from earlier this year. Local firefighters and first responders were among the first people to be offered vaccines against COVID-19. Now fire chiefs are worried that first responders who refused vaccines may lose their jobs.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Garrett Cabeza The Spokesman-Review

COVID-19 vaccination rates among Spokane-area fire agencies range from 50% to 90%, leaving some fire chiefs more worried than others as it relates to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate.

Inslee issued an emergency proclamation last month requiring vaccination for state employees, as well as health care, K-12 and higher-education workers, by Oct. 18. If they choose not to be vaccinated, those employees can provide a valid religious or medical exemption to the vaccine. Those who refuse to get vaccinated or submit an exemption face firing.

Washington’s state employee union is asking a court to delay implementation of the mandate, saying it should not proceed until its full impacts have been negotiated .

Stevens County Fire District 1 Chief Mike Bucy said about 50 percent of his department is vaccinated but he said that number should rise as more of his firefighters plan to get inoculated. He said some plan to submit medical or religious exemptions but he does not know how many.

“It’s a huge concern obviously,” Bucy said. “Anytime you lose anybody it’s a concern, but to lose them due to lack of vaccination or their opposition to it would be disheartening.”

He said there should have been more discussion before Inslee issued the vaccine mandate.

“I don’t appreciate the abruptness of it, but it is what it is,” Bucy said.

City of Spokane spokesman Brian Coddington said the city’s fire department vaccination rate is roughly 60% but that it has not been able to collect vaccination data to date. Mike Lopez, integrated health services manager for the Spokane Fire Department, estimated the department’s vaccination rate at 55 percent.

Coddington said it will collect data as it relates to emergency medical technicians and paramedic license holders to comply with the state mandate.

Firefighters are included under the mandate if they are licensed by the state as an EMT or paramedic, or whenever they perform medical functions in their duty, according to the mandate.

Coddington said there is still time for firefighters to get vaccinated and they have until Friday to submit an exemption request. After Friday, he said he will have a better understanding of if the department’s response times to calls could be negatively impacted from a potential loss of personnel because of the state mandate.

Spokane Valley Fire Department Community Affairs Manager Julie Happy said about 70% of the department is vaccinated and that number is expected to grow as fire personnel are continuing to get vaccinated. Of the 10 to 15 firefighters that previously said they would rather quit than get the vaccine, Happy said some are seeking exemptions.

She said the SVFD has some of the best firefighters in the area and “(Chief Bryan Collins) wouldn’t want to lose anyone” for failing to getting vaccinated.

Even if some firefighters did lose their jobs because of the mandate, Happy said response times would not be affected.

“We’ll continue to provide the same quality of service that we always provide,” she said.

Spokane Fire District 3 Chief Cody Rohrbach also said about 70 percent of his department is vaccinated but he said the potential loss of unvaccinated firefighters would “absolutely” impact service. He said it would have fewer personnel to respond to calls, particularly medical calls, noting those calls require vaccinated first responders.

Of the 30 percent who are unvaccinated, Rohrbach said some plan to get vaccinated, others are considering and some will not.

“It’s all over the board,” he said.

Rohrbach said he is working with other fire agencies in Spokane County to get clarification from the state relating to accommodations for firefighters who claim a medical or religious exemption.

“If an accommodation is made, can that individual still practice patient care?” he said.

Spokane County Fire District 10 Deputy Chief Orlando Sandoval said around 90 percent of his department is vaccinated. While he is not concerned about response times if some firefighters do not meet the mandate, he does fear that it could drive aspiring firefighters away from the profession.

“If it’s made to be a requirement and people don’t want to get the vaccination, then they obviously won’t want to become a firefighter,” Sandoval said.